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The FATE 

OF THE 

ELEPHANT 




VIKING 

Penguin India 





The FATE 

OF THE 

ELEPHANT 


|Ci1l51CTl^raCTCTCTI51CTIrnin^ Cj pIHiraCTraCi1TO Ci irain1ISlCilPi1CilCilCi|Ci 

Douglas H. Chadwick 


VIKING 



VIKING 

Penguin Books India (P) lid., 210, Chinnjiv Tower, 43, Nehru Place, New Delhi 110 019, India 
Penguin Books Lid., 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, UK 
Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, USA 
Penguin Boob Australia Ltd., Ringwood, Victoria, Australia 
Penguin Boob Canada Ltd., 10 Alcorn Avenue, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario M4V 3B2, Canada 
Penguin Boob (NZ) Ltd., 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand 


LIBRARY 

St,IRRRl,F N() " • 2& M 

Kin ttBRLF-lOtWJ** 



This is for Karen Reeves, whom I just love 




CONTENTS 


Acknowledgments • ix 

Introduction • Siberia • 1 

One • First Touch • 8 

Two • The Past • 23 

Three • East Africa: Amboseli • 37 

Four • East Africa: Tsavo • 102 

Five • Central Africa: Bangui • 132 

Six • Central Africa: Bayanga • 153 

Seven • Japan • 201 

Eight • Hong Kong • 231 

Nine • India: Theppakadu • 245 

Ten • India: Mudumalai Sanctuary • 283 

Eleven • Switzerland • 334 

Twelve • Thailand • 346 

Thirteen • Malaysia • 386 

Fourteen • Southern Africa: Zimbabwe • 409 

Epilogue • A Future • 463 

Selected Bibliography • 477 

Index • 481 




ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 


lo produce a story of this scope, I depended so much upon the 
generosity of so many around the globe that any attempt to 
properly acknowledge their help is bound to be inadequate. I 
have tried within the book to credit those who led me through 
elephant country and elephant society. A more complete list ap- 
pears here. It includes people invaluable in opening doors within 
foreign lands and Byzantine bureaucracies, people who freely 
shared hard-won information and ideas, and people who helped 
keep me alive in the bush. It is anything but a polite phrase to say 
that without their assistance, this book would not contain nearly 
as much information. Without their kindness and knowledge, 
this book would not be. 

In no particular order, I wish to thank: Diana McMeekin, 
Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, Joyce Poole, John Lenhardt, 
Holly Dublin, David (Jonah) Western, Cynthia Moss, Dave 
Blasko, Ron Whitfield, Michael Fay, Maranosuke Okazaki, Jean 
Hromodka, Richard Carroll, Eric Dinerstein, Tom McShane, 
Bruce Bunting, Michael Schmidt, Lois (Betsy) Rasmussen, 
Richard Barnes, Karen Barnes, Simon Stuart, Raymond Mbiti- 
kon, Gustave Doungoube, Mbutu Clement, Widodo Ramono, 
Charles Santiapillai, Chris Wemmer, Mohammed Khan bin Mo- 
minKhan, Perez Olindo, Joe Kioko, Simon Trevor, Barbara Tay- 
ak, Tom Milliken, Chizuki Milliken, Sanet Thanapradit, Bhan 
Kanin, Choowit Mahamontri, Boran Gowda, N. Sivaganesan, 
Ajay A. Desai, Mark Butcher, Rowan Martin, Alan Sparrow, 
Norah Njiraini, Soila Sayialel, Venkatadri Ganapathy, Moham- 
med Shariff Daim, George Calef, Don Young, Mark Stanley 
Price, Ian Parker, Esmond Bradley Martin, Cyndee Martin, 
Daphne Sheldrick, Jorgen Thomsen, Richard Aylwood, Julian 
Trent, Adrian Read, Isaac Zhou, J. P. Mueleya, Joshua Mun- 



x The Fate of the Elephant 

saka. Buck DeVries, Penny DeVries, June Farquhar, Pat Carr- 
Hartley, Heather Carr-Hartley, Sojayi Mlambo, Kathy Martin, 
Mike Jones, Maxine Steffen, Rob Monroe, Alan Roocroft, Dick 
George, Tawny Carlson, Anita Schanberger, Doug Lee, Steve 
Johnson, Doug Seus, Lynne Seus, Hideomi Tokunaga, Katsuto- 
shi Saito, Junichi Yano, Shigeyoshi Araki, S. Sunamoto, Tam- 
otsu Ishibashi, Mikaail Kavanagh, Kageo Takaichi, Edmund Ho, 
Lee Chi, Meor Osman bin Imam Pinawa, A nay Lau Shuk Man, 
David Melville, Lee Chat, Jira Jintanugool, Satya Vrat Shastri, 
Pisit na Patalung, Siasp Kothavala, Zerene Kothavala, P. D. 
Gaonkar, C. D. Joseph, K. C. Panicker, V. Krishnamurthy, 
Manas Yaviraj, Constantius Mlay, M. L. Phiphatanachatr Dis- 
kul, Pranee Thanasamut, Jean Ngbodjourou, Alassan Garba, Ja- 
cob V. Cheeran, R. Kaimal, R. Seluakumar, A. J. T. Johnsingh, 
Jim Williams, Richard Lair, Robert Dobias, Niyom Vaewwong, 
Dee Chaona, Vo Quy, Preecha Phongkum, Sylvain Gerbet, Zaa- 
ba Zainol Abidin, Jasmi bin Abdul, Ahmad Zanudin bin Abdul 
Rahman, V. Thamilarasu Vaiyapuri, K. A. Belliappa, S. Ramesh 
Kumar, Ullas Karanth, Fred Koinange, Edward Barbier, Philip 
Camford, Tom Claytor, David M^itumo, James Ampany, Gid- 
eon Omyango Nyabola, James Ndegwa Nguniah, Bill Woodley, 
Ted Goss, Henry Malenya, Ram Munge, Hassan Idle, Fidelis 
Mwoki, Leonard M. Odhiambo, Peter Gitema Khsathi, Arthur 
Green, Anna Kretsinger, Quentin Epps, Henry Prankerd, Phi- 
lippe Vialette, Boby Jean-Baptiste, Mary Marshall, H. P.J. Pe- 
ters, Gloria Young, Jean Ndobale, Zaolo Casimir, Mesan Felice, 
David Fields, Alain LeFol, Martine Dietz, Andy Wilkinson, 
Alfred Momguenzi, Albert Essengamobe, James Deane, Teal 
Chadwick, and Russell Chadwick. 

This will no sooner go to print than 1 will probably remember 
several other people who made important contributions. I apol- 
ogize for any such omissions. Also, I must point out that despite 
the length of the list of those who assisted my efforts, I managed 
to make whatever mistakes this book contains all on my own. My 
special thanks to Bill Graves, Bill Thompson, John Echave, Rob- 
ert Poole, Charles McCarry, Bill Garrett, Joseph Judge, Bob Ca- 
pu to, Jonathan Tourtellot, Margaret Sedeen, Caroline Anderson, 



Acknowledgments xi 


Jan Thompson, and Michael Hopps of National Geographic and 
to that venerable Society as a whole for supporting the majority 
of my research. Special gratitude is also due Dr. R. Sukumar of 
the Indian Institute of Science, who reviewed the chapters on In- 
dia, and Dr. Peter Hoch of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who 
took the time to check botanical information for the chapters on 
central Africa. Finally, I am most grateful to editors Jon Beck- 
mann, Jim Cohee, and Linda Gunnarson of Sierra Club Books 
for their guidance, patience, and encouragement. 




INTRODUCTION 


Siberia 


LSISIQIS - The name Siberia comes from Sibir, which means 
the Sleeping Land. Each summer in the far northern part of that 
region, as rivers cut deeper into their channels and waves from 
the Arctic Ocean break against the coast, freshly exposed sec- 
tions of the frozen soil slump away, revealing troves of ivory. 
They are the tusks of wooly mammoths. Tens of thousands of 
years ago, these specialized second upper incisor teeth served the 
giants in defense, display, and dominance battles. Some are 
more than two-and-a-half times the length of a human. A few, 
permeated by copper compounds in the soil, are now blue. In 
places, they lie jumbled together by the hundreds. 

Mammoth ivory — along with the rare spiraling tusk of a 
narwhal whale, often billed as unicorn horn — was the chief trade 
item from this permafrosted part of the world in ancient times 
and on through the Middle Ages, when the region w|5 known 
as the Mongol Khanate of Sibir. The Russian Empire’s own 
colonization of the sleeping land didn’t begin until late in the 
sixteenth century. As Cossacks and other adventurers finally 
breached the wall of the Ural Mountains and began to explore 
northern Asia, the first treasures they sent back, even before 
gold and sable furs, were more tusks. Tales of those prehistoric 
lodes of ivory, passed along over time and great distances, 
may have evolved into the widespread legends of elephant 
graveyards. 

I once stood within a mammoth graveyard at the cold sea’s 
edge. Curved spires jutted everywhere from the earth with the 
midnig h t sun shining along one side of them. All else lay in fog 
and shadow. Hesitantly, I reached into the ground mist and 



a The Fate of the Elefhant 

picked up a fragment of tusk. Its musty-smelling surface was 
cracked and grey. Yet when I chipped away this rind, the core 
emerged white and lustrous, nearly perfectly preserved. Work- 
ing more carefully now with my knife, I dug at the remaining 
patches of rot and age. As I did, a figure about the size of an egg 
took shape. It was a human head. I scraped off the last stains and 
strained to see the features more clearly. I recognized the face. It 
was my own. 

The earliest known human portrait was one carved onto mam- 
moth ivory 26,000 years ago. The one I saw was part of a dream 
I dreamed while on a boat rocking at anchor along the shore of 
Siberia’s Lena River. Several days earlier, I had spent the morn- 
ing watching Yakut carvers work fossil ivory at a native crafts 
collective. They used electric drills and lathes, and the final 
products were unremarkable figurines of humans and elephants. 
Still, with plumes of ivory dust ghosting through the air to give 
the workshop the unsettling odor of a tooth doctor’s office, the 
scene managed to inscribe itself deep in my memory. That after- 
noon, I went on to the local science museum, where I remained 
for a long time before a tall, glass case that held the red-furred 
hind leg of a young wooly mamfnoth: more raw material for 
dreams. 

The curator, paleontologist Svetlana Mochanov, guessed that 
the hindpuarter had been cut off and cached in the permafrost by 
an Ice Age hunter who never returned for the meat. She listed 
several past discoveries of well-preserved mammoths. Often, it 
was camp dogs or sled dogs that led the way to an outcrop of 
prehistoric flesh in the tundra. And sometimes the only result 
was that the dogs' owner would dig down and extract more meat 
to feed his team for a while. A prospector claimed to have come 
upon a fully grown adult mammoth standing upright and com- 
pletely intact within a block of clear ice squeezed out of a soft- 
ening hillside. 

In die stomachs of mammoth carcasses and in the crevices of 
their enormous molar teeth, scientists have found buttercups, 

sedges, dwarf willows — the same sort of plants common on. ths 

tundra today, in 1990, developers bulldozing an Ohio peat bog 



Introduction j 

to make a golf course uncovered the remains of a mastodon. Pa- 
leontologists sampled what appeared to be the intestinal con- 
tents and from them isolated bacteria about 11,000 years old. 
These may be the oldest living organisms ever found, they an- 
nounced. But there are more ways than one to define a living 
organism. 

“In 1971/’ Svetlana related, “an expedition brought back tis- 
sues of a mammoth in which the frozen cells were still alive. 
They spoiled before they could be properly stored. However, if 
such a find were to be made now, it is quite possible that we 
could isolate the genetic material and preserve it intact. Given re- 
cent advances in microtechniques, it is even possible that the 
genes could be spliced into the egg of a living elephant. ...” 
Surrounded by shelves where skulls of extinct bison rested 
alongside Stone Age spear tips and scrapers, she held her palms 
open and fixed me with a questioning look. I nodded to show 
that I understood: the offspring of elephants with such ancient 
DNA added to their own could be selectively bred over gener- 
ations to recreate what would essentially be a living mammoth. 

That would be a wonder. And a monument to .irony. My trip 
through remote Sibir was a respite from daily news of the 
world. But before I had left the United States, reports about the 
slaughter of elephants by ivory poachers had been arriving in a 
torrent. As a biologist and natural history writer, I had paid close 
attention. I knew that whereas Africa held an estimated 5 to 10 
million elephants — minimum — in the nineteenth century and 
perhaps 3 million as recently as 1970, it now held more like 
600,000. Or less. Some wildlife protection groups felt that a 
guess of 400,000 might be high. At the rate these modem giants 
were being felled, experts predicted, they would be nearly ex- 
tinct in the wild within another decade or two. Conservationists 
were drawing up a sort of triage strategy in which the limited 
money and manpower avada\>\e to defend the pants would go 
toward reinforcing the most secure parks and preserves while 
other areas were essentially written off. It was hoped that 
250,000 elephants might be saved this way, if the plan worked. 
Already, there was a move to place' the African elephant on the 



4 The Fate of the Elephant 


endangered species list along with the last 35,000 to 55,000 wild 
Asian elephants. 

Svetlana’s husband, Yuri Mochanov, was instrumental in un- 
earthing remains of the Diuktai culture of northeastern Siberia. 
The first bands of people to reach North America toward the 
end of the Ice Ages were probably Diuktai, and they were prob- 
ably following mammoth herds. Like the carver of the first hu- 
man portrait, these Late Paleolithic people preyed primarily 
upon mammoths, along with wooly rhinos, bison, and reindeer. 
Svetlana took me by boat to where she and Yuri had been work- 
ing. Their excavations were on a hillside overlooking a bend of 
the Lena River and a tremendous expanse of low ridges and 
autumn-colored taiga that swept away to the north. I could 
make out the earth’s curvature on the horizon. This was a good 
perch for watching lunar eclipses and northern lights, Svetlana 
said. She thought that might have been one reason the ancients 
chose the spot for burial ceremonies and, some of the evidence 
led her to think, ritual slayings. 

I sat on the sacred ground and closed my eyes, feeling the up- 
stream wind on my face. Beside me was a woman who spoke of 
reanimating mammoths while, far to the south, herd after herd 
of elephants collapsed in an explosion of screams and dust mixed 
with automatic rifle fire. Around us were the remains of people 
who sang to the stars and the northern lights while slitting 
throats on the ground. In what was still the Soviet Far East at the 
time, I had run into a Communist Party bureaucrat so obsessed 
with making sure that I wrote only good things about his region 
that he made my time there miserable. At one point he asked me 
about some people 1 had visited without his official permission. 
He demanded to know their names and what ideas they held. I 
told him that he needed a vacation. I have no doubt the unrepen- 
tant old Stalinist had sent more than his share of countrymen off 
*0 ihe gulagin shades over $he years. ^Jas\ie merely the prod- 
uct of a modem totalitarian regime? Or was he, more in the tra- 
dition of the Diuktai, sacrificing lives to maintain his sense of 
order in the universe? Was there a difference? What is it in us that 
spawns and perpetuates such systems in the first place? 



Introduction 5 


In my travels, there were days when I felt 1 was understanding 
more of the world in which I lived and days when I understood 
less and less. This was a less day. I had been blind-sided by sev- 
eral lately. Winter was on the way. It was getting to be time to 
turn home. 


I had been back in the United States a few weeks and was 
working around my house in Whitefish, Montana, when I got a 
telephone call from Charles McCarry in Washington, D.C. A 
former Central Intelligence Agency man, McCarry had turned 
to writing and produced, among other works, best-selling spy 
novels. He also happened to be the editor in charge of freelance 
writers for National Geographic magazine at that moment. In ad- 
dition to producing chapters for several National Geographic 
books — my trip to Siberia was for a book on the fast-changing 
Soviet Union, which turned out to be changing even faster than 
we realized — I had written nine articles for the magazine. 
McCarry was calling to offer me number ten. • 

“Elephants,” he said. “Elephants of the world.” 

“Of the world!” 

“Right. We want to covei Asian elephants as well as African 
elephants, and everything from circuses to the ivory trade. We’re 
talking about a lot of time and a lot of work. What do you 
think?” 

During my first visit to Africa several years before, I had 
spent two months in Namibia's Etosha National Park. There 
were elephants chasing off lions at the waterholes, elephants ris- 
ing above the low thorn scrub like lan . f forms, elephants walking 
in the sky when the heat shimmering off the white salt pans 
formed mirages, elephants every day. Then there was the day I 


went along with a wildlife vetcravaxYMt 

or males, with a tran ’uilizer gun so that he could VtiOoAaXt 

s a fT“ " a " thr « 'Hemic sweeping the area. As the animals 
1* onto their sides, I began to explore their live — > — » ■ 
With my hands. And it was a, ifl hJLJ-1 _ -S*'*** 




6 The Fate of the Elephant 


fore. The veined ears, enormous leaves of flesh. Hillsides of 
skin, cracked and furrowed in honeycomb patterns like mud at 
a drying waterhole. A naked club of a tail with its fringe of stiff, 
black hairs. A penis nearly four feet long. And then the trunk, 
coiled upon the sand — the fleshy, fingerlike projection on the 
upper side of the tip bending slightly over twin nostrils and 
trembling with the rush of air in and out; miraculous organ, like 
a separate creature, animated by 50,000 muscles; taster, trumpet, 
periscope of smell, snorkel and showerhead, arm and hand. 
“With a single hand / He can pull two palm trees to the ground,” 
a poem of West Africa’s Yoruba people proclaims. “If he had 
two hands / He could tear the sky like an old rag.” And when we 
found elephants dead of anthrax and burned their bodies to keep 
scavengers from spreading the disease, it took eleven dump 
trucks of wood for each one’s funeral pyre. . . . 

“Okay? Come back for a story meeting and we’ll go over the 
details,” McCarry was saying. 

“Okay. Sure. I . . . Yes. Elephants. Yes!” As I replacecLthe 
phone, I realized that I had just decided what I would be doing 
for the next two to three years. I also realized that I was not 
going to have any second thoughts about it. 

When I go out to observe an animal, I go with the expectation 
that I will do more than learn about it. I will learn from it, as a 
student from a teacher. Each successful species is a model of how 
to exist within a given environment. Each has arrived at a so- 
lution for living with its own kind and a solution to the problem 
of living among other species. Each perceives the world in a 
unique way, often through senses that I share but have not taken 
full advantage of, or through habits of awareness that I would do 
well to practice. 

Now I would be dealing not only with the largest and most 
powerful creature that walks this planet but with one of the 
smartest. An inspirational teacher. The immediate question was 
how many might escape the ivory poachers’ onslaught. If sig- 
nificant populations survived, the next question would be how 
animals that require such enormous amounts of food and space 
would coexist with a human population expected to shoot past 
10 billion in the near future. It occurred to me that the fate of the 



Introduction 7 

last true land giants might teach all of us about what the future 
will be like, insofar as elephant conservation measures our will- 
ingness to protect large areas of the natural world. If we are not 
able to safeguard wildlands in sufficiently big tracts, then the 
processes and patterns that shaped existing biological commu- 
nities can no longer operate as they have for millions of years. 
And that would mark the end of natural history. From there on, 
we would be pinwheeling into an unfathomable era with no ref- 
erence point other than the shifting impulses and convictions of 
humankind. 

The number of trees in the forest and fishes in the sea, the very 
color and transparency of the air, the temperature of the globe; 
these things did appear to be turning into extensions of human 
cultures and values. So tell me, as the future of virtually every 
species comes to depend upon the whim of just one, how does a 
person write meaningfully about natural history? 

Here is what I had been doing: Typically, I would begin by re- 
counting the special qualities of this wild creature or that one, 
move on to the grave problems confronting it, and conclude that 
it might not have much longer to go; that, at best, it might sur- 
vive as a sort of precious artifact in some shard of its former 
range. This was not some formula I had settled upon. It was the 
essential situation in case after case. I was a half-step away from 
becoming a professional mourner. I could not bear the thought 
that the most 1 might aspire to now was to craft fine elegies in 
the Age of Extinction. 

Were we really that close to a fundamental change in the na- 
ture of life on Earth? Or was I overly alarmed? Or was the 
change even more sweeping and farther along than I perceived? 
I would be off soon enough to elephant habitat in the tropics and 
subtropics, the biologically richest regions of the globe, to 
gauge the scale of transformation for myself. Right now, I just 
wanted to lay my hands on a live elephant, as I had in Namibia. 
It seemed important to make direct contact with the sheer phys- 
ical wonder of these beings again and charge myself up for 
whatever was to come. 

So I went to the zoo. 



ONE 


First Touch 


LQISISIS You don’t get sniffed when you meet an ele- 
phant face to face in its compound. You get vacuumed. The 
giant looms before you, and its head alone is larger than any of 
the bears and gorillas you passed along the way. And from the 
head extends a tube of tissue as long and heavy as any man, and 
it pulls the scent off your body with a seemingly ' endless intake 
of breath. This probe — this colossal tentacle, this moist- 
nostriled, finger-headed python — is especially interested in your 
armpits and crotch, homing in like a great, rude, toothlessfdog 
to where the ripest essences collect. It also savors your feet, in- 
haling more details about you and where you have been lately 
and what you were up to there. # 

The elephant is treating you more or less as it would one of 
its own kind that it feels comfortable around. When such ele- 
phants greet each other, they reach out with their trunks and 
sniff tip to tip, or, more typically, extend the trunk tips into 
each other’s mouths. The mutual gesture conveys information 
through smell, taste, and touch simultaneously. There is also a 
sort of mutual reassurance, as in a handshake, and the touch part 
of the greeting may expand into a rubbing of each other’s tongue 
and gums. 

That is what the elephant handlers at Marine World-Africa, 
U.S.A. in Vallejo, California, were doing while I met their 
charges: rubbing the animals’ gums with their hands, reassuring 
them. And reassuring me, keeping things cool. Every now and 
again, a captive elephant is offended by someone or simply takes 
an instant dislike to a person and destroys him or her. The giant 
picks up the human creature and hurls it away, or flings it down 



First Touch 9 


and then tramples it, runs it through with a tusk, or does a head- 
stand on it, which is the handlers’ term for dropping to one knee 
and plunging the weight of the forehead onto the victim. They 
say the headstand is a common technique when an elephant de- 
cides to nail somebody, which is not often but is less rare than 
generally supposed. 

<4 You can go ahead and touch her,” handler Dave Blasko said 
as a female Asian elephant named Margie inspected me. “They 
like it when you blow into their trunk.” I cupped the probe now 
hovering in front of my face and gave it a sample of my breath 
and, as it stayed there expectantly, worked my hands up the 
trunk and felt them pricked by the short, stiff sensory hairs pro- 
truding from the skin along its length. Then I was touching the 
forehead and then the side of the head and finally stroking the 
curve of the jaw. I looked up into Margie’s eye. It was a good 
eye, a gentle brown eye with long, long lashes. No tense move- 
ments in the lids. Not a lot of white showing around the iris. In 
many mammals, the eyes remain the single best indicator of an 
individual animal’s mood and intentions, or at least the one we 
primates are best equipped to read. The feeling you get from an 
animal’s eye is probably a better guide to what you ought to do 
next than any theories or general expectations you bring to the 
encounter. Margie opened tier mouth. Dave nodded, and I be- 
gan to rub her gums and the bulging pad of her tongue. 

I did not hear her rumble of contentment — not exactly. I felt 
something resonate in my bones. Leaning slowly back to where 
I could see her forehead, I noticed that it was fluttering. I put my 
hand on the skin there, which covers a large sinus cavity in the 
front of the skull, and felt the vibrations more strongly. This was 
how researcher Katharine Payne discovered that elephants com- 
municate with infrasound, or frequencies below the range of hu- 
man hearing. In 1984, as Payne was watching Asian elephants at 
the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, she felt the air 
around her throbbing. Having worked earlier with great whales 
and their songs, she was primed to recognize the possibility that 
giants of the land might also carry on conversations in wave- 
lengths that humans can only sense, at best, as a kind of rolling. 



io The Fate of the Elephant 


phantom thunder. (Actually, Georg von Bekesy had shown 
years earlier that the cochlea of the elephant's ear is designed to 
detect very low frequencies, and dolphin communication re- 
searcher John Lilly wrote in 1978 that “elephants apparently 
communicate in regions subsonic for humans.”) 

Of course, elephants also have a vocabulary of squeals, 
grunts, growls, roars, trumpet blasts, barks, putters, and rum- 
bles that we can hear. In confinement, some amuse themselves 
by putting their trunks in their own mouths and blowing to cre- 
ate different sounds. Dave mentioned that Bandula, another 
Asian female, would put her trunk tip on the ground and step on 
it to squeeze high-pitched tones out of the passing air. In other 
words, Bandula had taught herself how to whistle. Meanwhile, 
many captive elephants respond to seventy to eighty different 
commands in the human language. Some understand a hundred. 

Between twenty and thirty commands are necessary simply 
for care and maintenance. For example, an elephant’s toenails 
grow at a rate suited to a beast that normally walks at*least 
twenty to thirty miles each day in the wild. Without trimming, 
they can soon become ingrown, leading to painful infections. 
And once an elephant stops moving, it is highly susceptible to 
arthritis in the bones of its columnlike legs. In the old days, 
when zoo elephants were simply thrown into cages for a lifetime 
of solitary confinement, most became so crippled they could no 
longer have walked away even if set free. You can still find 
places, such as the zoo in Paris, where the elephant on display is 
expected to stand on ruined legs alone in a dim room until it dies. 
To keep a captive elephant in reasonable health, it should be ex- 
ercised, socially stimulated by both its handlers and other ele- 
phants, and trained to, at the very least, lift one leg at a time in 
order to undergo nail-filing on an almost daily basis. 

It should also be made manageable enough to submit to vet- 
erinary attention. If the vet has to knock out the animal with 
drugs every time he needs to treat some affliction, the risk of 
death becomes considerable. Accidental overdoses and allergic 
reactions are always threats, but the main problem has to do 
with the fact that elephants breathe differently than most mam- 



First Touch ii 


mals do. Instead of a diaphragm contracting and creating a vac* 
uum in the pleural cavity to draw in air, their lungs depend upon 
the muscles that surround them to force air in and out. As a re- 
sult, an elephant that falls unconscious onto its side is likely to 
develop serious breathing problems in a short time. If it col- 
lapses onto its knees with its head hanging down forward, the 
breathing passage becomes choked off and the animal will suf- 
focate even more quickly. 

The handlers were eager to present the training they did as a 
way of safeguarding the elephants’ physical and mental health. 
The more tricks an elephant is taught to perform, the better var- 
ious muscle groups are kept in tone and the more alert and active 
its mind remains. And the higher the status of the trainer within 
the close-knit fraternity of handlers, though they did not say 
that. Dave was working with a young Asian male named Ro- 
man. They made a nice pair as they strolled the grounds of Ma- 
rine World greeting visitors: dark-haired Dave in his jeans and 
Western shirt, trim and athletic, with Roman, already the taller 
of the two at five years of age and 4000 pounds, freshly washed, 
his juvenile coat of long, reddish hairs standing out from his 
head and shoulders like mammoth fur. Roman gives rides and 
runs through a remarkably agile routine of stunts in an arena 
here. Sometimes, after playing a harmonica, the young male en- 
acts a bedroom scene in which he wakes up, knocks an alarm 
clock off a table, pulls the blanket back over his head, then finally 
rises to shower and brush his teeth. Dave takes Roman to do Las 
Vegas shows, television appearances, parades, fairs, and the oc- 
casional Republican inauguration in Sacramento. A young, un- 
trained, Asian elephant male sells for $30,000 and up. What is a 
well-trained one worth? Roman is insured for a million dollars. 

“Some of the neatest tricks in their repertoire are ones they 
show you,” Dave told me. “You just gain control over this thing 
they do bit by bit.” 

What elephants can train themselves to do is what I was most 
interested in, and this is what I heard. At any number of zoos, 
the elephants have figured out how to turn on water faucets. 
(They had in the bush of Namibia; too, cranking open the flow 



12 The Fate of the Elephant 

of water at windmill-powered wells within Etosha National 
Park and at livestock ponds around the reserve’s borders. “It 
wouldn't be so bad if the big bastards would learn how to turn 
them off once they’re done,” one rancher told me.) They have 
also learned how to unfasten certain types of shackles put on 
their feet at night. “Once they see how you put them on, they’ll 
know how to take them off,” was the usual comment. A handler 
at the Phoenix Zoo accused one elephant pf hastily putting on 
its fetters again so that they looked fastened when it saw some- 
one coming, just as a human prisoner who had worked free of 
his bonds might do when the jailer arrives. On a day when I was 
visiting there, one of the handlers hosing down the elephant stall 
jokingly said to an onlooking African elephant, “Rafiki, you’re 
in the way. Why don’t you go outside and chain yourself?” Later 
on, the handlers could not find her until they looked in the yard. 
Rafiki had gone outside and chained herself. 

IfinSlSlSlSlSlSlSlSlSlSlSl® 

I was at the Phoenix Zoo to meet Ruby. Originally from Thai- 
land, she was sixteen at the timd and weighed 7800 pounds, and 
I was told not to mention the word paint aloud in her presence. 
Since she was present, walking beside me and trainers Anita 
Schanberger and Tawny Carlson, we spoke in code. 

“1 started teaching Ruby to engage in artistic endeavors as a 
form of enrichment — you know, something else fun to do for an 
animal stuck here in a compound,” Tawny said. “We’d noticed 
all the elephants in the yard doodling with sticks on the sand or 
scratching the concrete walls with them, and Ruby was a pretty 
regular doodler. So we started off with a huge piece of card- 
board as a canvas. At first, Ruby would P..A..I..N..T 
the canvas and the people holding the canvas, all with big, 
swinging strokes. Gradually, she got the idea of what she was 
supposed to do, and we cut down the size of the canvas to where 
she’s working on eighteen-by-twenty-two-inch pieces now.” 
That’s like one of us painting on a cigarette paper, 1 thought. 

“Anyway, Anita came up to me one day and asked, ’Can el- 
ephants see color?’ I said, ’I dunno.’ So Anita went all over 



Fust Touch ij 

looking up information. Nothing. Everybody just assumed el- 
ephants were colorblind," Tawny continued. “Then the vet here 
asked me one day, ‘If Ruby can’t see color, why does she always 
pick the same ones?’ So we did some crude tests with different- 
colored objects and rewarded Ruby for picking certain colors. 
She made the correct choice about 80 percent of the time.” 

When Anita started quantifying the pigments Ruby chose for 
her canvases, it turned out that the elephant first selected either 
blue or red from a full-spectrum palette about 80 percent of the 
time. Equally interesting was the fact that if, say, an orange 
truck parked close by in view. Ruby might choose orange in- 
stead. Or if a woman in a yellow dress came along with the han- 
dlers that day, then yellow was the first color on the canvas. A 
zoo visitor was once taken ill while watching Ruby paint, and 
paramedics were called to the scene. They wore blue suits. It 
might have been a coincidence that after they left. Ruby painted 
a blue blob surrounded by a swirl of red. 

The day I watched this process, Tawny began by asking, 
“Ruby, how would you like to paint?” Giant ears began flapping. 
The elephant’s eyes widened, the tail lifted and kinked, then the 
trunk began flipping up and down. Ruby was rocking with ex- 
citement. The handlers brought out palette, brushes, and can- 
vas. Ruby began with blue. She made very small dabs and loops 
on the extreme lower right-hand corner of the canvas that she 
towered above, concentrating the color in that one particular 
section. This went on for several minutes. It looked to me like 
Ruby was stuck there doodling, and I asked Anita what this had 
to do with making a painting. Anita said, “That’s where she 
wants to paint right now. That’s what she’s working on. Okay. 
Let’s try something.” Anita then rotated the canvas so that what 
had been the lower right-hand corner was now the upper left- 
hand comer. Ruby stood back a bit and studied the new arrange- 
ment for about ten seconds. Then she went right back to filling 
in the part of the canvas that she had been working on, though 
it was 180 degrees from where it had been before. Finally, when 
she had finished that to her satisfaction, she went on to the heart 
of the canvas with a new color and looser strokes. 

Much later, traveling through Thailand, I heard that a paint- 



14 Thh Fatb op the Elbphant 


ing made by an Asian elephant in an American zoo was shown 
to a Japanese Buddhist nun. The nun looked over the brush 
strokes, nodded, and said: Ah yes, that is the symbol for Bud- 
dha. Other stories floating around involve elephants that spelled 
out messages in the dirt or on paper. They are probably apoc- 
ryphal, which is a polite way of saying they are bull, but I like 
them just the same. I like anything that makes us pause, however 
briefly, and ask: 1 wonder if an elephant really could do that. 
Naw; probably not. But I wonder how close. . . . 

“Sometimes,” Anita said, “we speak in complete sentences — 
for example, ‘Ruby, hand me the brush, will you?’ — and the 
brush suddenly shows up in your hand. I don’t know what she 
understands exactly. It could just be she’s so sensitive that she 
seems to anticipate what you might do next. Once, to make an 
entertainment system for her, I drilled a lot of holes in a log box 
and set up a complicated choice test with a food reward. Well, it 
was too tough. She tried it two or three times, then picked the 
whole thing up and just handed it to me, as if saying, ‘What’s the 
point here, Anita?’ They know what they’re doing at their level. 
We’re asking them to make the link to our level, to understand 
how we look at things. That’s asking a lot.” 

Ruby’s artwork and Anita’s research do not yet prove conclu- 
sively that elephants can see color. To satisfy scientific criteria for 
that, Anita first has to rule out the possibility that Ruby is re- 
sponding to different tonalities of grey. This involves a bewil- 
dering series of experiments and tests of fdm emulsions and 
checks of actual wavelengths of light and checks of the checking 
instruments and the fact that different human cultures perceive 
different hues of red as true red, and so on. But color perception 
is not the revelation here. What we are learning is that a great 
many of the limitations we ascribe to such animals may have 
mainly to do with limitations in our viewpoint. 

Ruby has now been painting for about four years with no 
waning of her interest. Nor has her original interest in playing 
with rocks and sticks to trace lines in the dirt diminished. Her 
paintings are in demand these days. Money raised from their sale 
has paid for her own artificial insemination, research on color 
discrimination, captive breeding facilities for blade-footed fer- 



First Touch ij 


rets and Mexican wolves, and an attempt to save the Pemba Is- 
land fruit bat in the wild. Still, the zoo, which at first let her paint 
for two years in private, is reluctant to have her face the palette 
and easel too often, lest she get bored. The whole affair still re- 
volves around keeping this captive animal entertained and inter- 
ested in her environment. In the meantime, Anita thinks, the 
African elephants in the yard have grown jealous of all the atten- 
tion Ruby gets for her painting. They have taken to drawing on 
the retaining walls with the ends of logs, leaving designs for 
everyone to see. 


Judy, an Asian female in her twenties living at Marine World, 
used to bunch up her chain and stand on it, then act as if she 
couldn’t reach the meal of hay heaped near her. When a keeper 
moved in to push the hay pile closer, she would step off the 
chain, surge ahead, and whack the person with her trunk. She 
hurt three people with this trick before she was better trained. 

Now and then, elephants simply remove the door to a cage 
by undoing nuts and bolts or pulling out nails or unscrewing 
screws. After staff at the Phoenix Zoo put steel plates over water 
valves in the yard to keep the elephants from turning them on, 
the elephants used rocks to break the nuts loose from the bolts 
holding the plates and turned the valves on anyway. Tava, a fe- 
male at Marine World, once used a log in the yard as a lever to 
pry open a barred retaining wall. The handlers decided to use a 
strip of spikes on the ground as a barrier instead. The elephants 
got more logs and built a bridge across it. At another zoo, han- 
dlers found elephants throwing tires from their yard onto nearby 
trees, weighing down the branches to where the animals could 
grab them to eat. Initially, an elephant could have been merely 
tossing tires about to entertain itself when one landed in a tree 
and rewarded the animal with food. Only then, perhaps, did the 
animal make the connection between tire-tossing and food, and 
other elephants learned by watching it. The point is*hat it is not 
necessary to credit the first tire-tosser with forethought. 

It doesn’t matter how many crucial human inventions also 



16 The Fate of the Elephant 


came about by happy accident — serendipitous diddling. As hu- 
mans have set up the rules, anything an animal does is assumed 
to be fairly reflexive or, at best, simple-minded unless incontro- 
vertible proof is offered to the contrary. During the first third of 
this century, Robert Yerkes of Yale University began exploring 
chimpanzee intelligence. When he showed that chimps were ca- 
pable of using a stick to reach food beyond the grasp of their 
hands, and of piling several short boxes on top of one another in 
order to get to a reward overhead, this was considered a revela- 
tion. The implications are still being debated, for we have no 
solid framework for speaking about animal reasoning abilities. 
In his book Apes, Men and Language, Eugene Linden wonders 
whether this is because we honestly never imagined that animals 
could have such potentials or because we did not want to admit 
other life forms into a citadel we had reserved exclusively for 
ourselves — a citadel Linden calls the Temple of Reason. 

Perhaps it is easier to let a few chimps in the door now that we 
have analyzed their DNA and discovered that 98.4 percent is 
identical to ours. Of the active part of the chromosomes, where 
the actual genetic instructions are sent forth, chimps and humans 
are 99.6 percent similar, which makes chimps and humans more 
closely related than chimps and gorillas. Most scientists now ac- 
cept the chimpanzee technique of poking a twig into a termite 
mound and licking off the insects still clinging to the twig when 
it is withdrawn as a limited form of tool-using. 

But what do we make of elephants that use sticks simply to 
scratch themselves? Is that tool-using? Nita, an Asian elephant at 
the San Diego Zoo, broke off one of her short female tusks, 
called a tush. Afterward, she seemed to be plagued by itching in- 
side the empty socket left in her upper lip and would use a stick 
to reach into the cavity and scratch. She was also given to grip- 
ping the wrist of a trainer and guiding the man’s hand up into 
the socket so that he could give her a more thorough scratching. 
Was that using a tool-user as a tool? And what of the zoo ele- 
phants that take sticks in their trunks and use them to draw in 
food otherwise too far to reach, just as Yerkes’s chimps did? Or 
those that pile logs in their yard to use as steps to reach over- 



First Touch 17 


hanging branches? A handler told me of watching more than 
one tethered elephant use its trunk like an air hose to blow an 
out-of-reach object against a wall so that it would bounce back 
within grasping distance. Isn’t that good enough to win at least 
a day pass to the Temple of Reason? 

Then there was Bertha, an Asian elephant who worked at the 
Nugget Casino in Reno, Nevada. As Dave described the situa- 
tion to me, the showgirls there had to pass by Bertha on their 
way to the dressing room, and the elephant would sometimes 
try to get them to give her a treat from a nearby cabinet. The ex- 
perienced ones had all been told to say no firmly. However, Ber- 
tha was able to spot women who had just been hired, and as a 
new employee hustled toward the dressing room, she would 
find her wrist suddenly in the grip of an elephant’s trunk. Then 
Bertha would lead her toward the cabinet and hold her arm out 
toward a key dangling from a string beside the box. And there 
the arm would stay until the showgirl reasoned that she was to 
use the key and open the cabinet. Once she did, her arm was 
freed instantly. After all, Bertha was going to need her trunk to 
get at all those sugar cubes waiting inside the cabinet. 

“It’s almost like a chess game when you work with these an- 
imals. If you’re not training them, they’re training you,” was 
Dave’s assessment. I heard the same comment from other han- 
dlers, and I had heard it before from people who worked with 
dolphins, grizzlies, dogs, primates, and, of course, children. I 
think it means that the doors to the Temple are being chewed, 
tusked, rammed, pried, unscrewed, and unbolted, while a hu- 
man hand, perhaps guided by an elephant trunk, hovers hesi- 
tantly before the lock. 

A surprising number of handlers compared working with el- 
ephants to working with mentally handicapped people. At the 
San Diego Zoo, the director of the elephant program, Alan Roo- 
croft, had hired handlers with a background in working with the 
handicapped. He also had a program that enabled mildly re- 
tarded and mute children to come and help out at the elephant 
compound. They performed basic chores and in return were al- 
lowed to touch and interact with the elephants. I noticed a boy 



1 8 The Fate of the Elephant 

with Down’s syndrome there one day and was intrigued by the 
way he changed from withdrawn to buoyant in the elephants' 
presence. I had become aware that I, too, felt a powerful sense of 
opening up when I was around them. 

My brother and sister are mentally retarded. Neither can 
speak in much more than calls and hooting exclamations. I 
learned from them that you work with what you have and that 
words are far less essential to real communication than we as* 
sume; in fact, they often conspire against it. Almost alone 
among the people I know, my brother and sister always mean 
exactly what they tell me they mean. Animals do the same. I 
have my brother and sister to thank for making me eager to 
listen. 

Elephants in confinement, being regularly fed and frequently 
bored, will work considerably harder for a reward of play than 
for food. The trick in training them, then, is to combine 
learning with play. Game motivation, psychologists call it. 
Positive reinforcement. The old standbys of pain and fear work 
best when used sparingly. Some elephants will purposely act 
naughty to get the attention they crave. “A lot of training with 
these animals is just bluff,” Dave added. “It’s not the physical 
hurt you can give them; it’s the mental punishment that finally 
controls them.” 

Yet some degree of physical pain is almost inevitably re- 
quired. Here, the chief tool is the ankus, a short stick with a 
sharp metal hook at the tip. It is the same basic instrument used 
for millennia with domestic elephants in Asia, though some zoo 
people prefer to speak of it in modern behavioral terms as a sur- 
rogate tusk. Although pachyderm, meaning thick-skinned, is a 
synonym for elephant, the elephant’s epidermis is thin in relation 
to the bulk of the body underneath and fairly easily scratched 
and tom. It is vulnerable to sunburn and remarkably sensitive to 
pricks as small as insect bites. Pluck a hair from the hide and the 
giant shudders. Tug on the loose folds of skin on the leg with an 
ankus, and the whole elephant moves forward. Make the ankus 
dig a bit into the nerve-packed base of the ear or the side of the 
face, and you'll have a recalcitrant animal’s undivided attention. 

When you’ve got an elephant acting especially ornery — about 



First Touch 19 

half-tough, as Dave would say — you might have to use an elec- 
tric cattle prod. Since one fully grown elephant is the size of a 
small band of cattle, a handler might hose down the giant with 
water, then put the prod to it if the animal is still acting balky. 
And sooner or later, a handler may have to just plain beat some 
elephant in a last-ditch effort to establish control before the ani- 
mal kills someone or has to be destroyed itself. 

That’s how the handlers explained it to me, anyway. The rea- 
son everyone was doing so much explaining was that I arrived 
not long after several incidents involving battered trainers and 
battered elephants had made quite a stir in California. Staff at the 
San Francisco Zoo were so uptight about publicity that they 
wouldn’t even grant me an interview. A female named Tinker- 
belle had hurt a veterinary technician there, and the public, hav- 
ing heard reports of painful training practices, was blaming the 
situation on the handlers. The elephant, they assumed, was only 
lashing back at its tormentors. Earlier, the San Diego Zoo ac- 
quired a half-tough elephant named Dunda. Her previous train- 
ing had been inconsistent, to put it nicely, and she reacted to her 
new social environment by threatening and injuring several 
people. One day, a crowd of tourists rattling merrily along on 
the little zoo train happened to roll by the elephant yard just as 
several trainers ganged up to work Dunda over with whatever 
was at hand, including shovels, and soon every newspaper 
reader in the state knew her name. The furor was loud and con- 
tinued until California passed a law specifically prohibiting the 
abuse of elephants. Dunda went on to kill someone. 

Most of the handlers I met did not think the public had any 
comprehension of what it takes to control a potentially aggres- 
sive beast of monstrous proportions. They saw the public as af- 
flicted with what they referred to as the Dumbo syndrome, 
meaning that people ordinarily reluctant to approach a strange 
dog will tend to walk right up to begin petting a multiton zoo 
elephant, perceiving it as a gentle giant. The handlers get doubly 
irked by criticism of abuse because they view themselves as 
people who love elephants far more than most and, moreover, 
love them for what they really are. 

I think they do. The handlers 1 met lived and breathed ele- 



20 The Fate of the Elephant 


phants. They were not zookeepers with twenty different species 
to tend to. They were elephant men, elephant women. They 
lived at the elephant house and in the elephant yard every day 
and thought about elephants and their personalities, and the re- 
lationships of each keeper and his or her personality to each el- 
ephant, and so on to the point of monomania. “Elephants are a 
religion with us. We don’t care if we’re in debt or don’t have a 
decent car to drive or anything. We get to be with elephants,” 
was how Jean Hromadka, the lead elephant keeper at the San 
Diego Zoo, put it. 

“The term humane treatment of animals mystifies me,” Dave 
Blasko told me one afternoon. “After all, what animal would 
want to be treated the way humans treat each other?” 

Handlers tend to believe that it is crucial to become, in effect, 


the top elephant in the hierarchy and run a responsive herd. 
Some clearly relish the role, finding in it a perfect outlet for 
domineering urges that probably drew them to animal training 
in the first place. Others like the give and take more than the 
tight control and are mainly concerned with developing bonds 
with individual animals. I9 short, the spectrum of tempera- 
ments and motivations among elephant people is not much dif- 
ferent than among horse people or dog people, people as a 
whole, and elephants as a whole. 

In recent years, there has been a definite swing in the popular 
consciousness of Western society toward recognizing our com- 
monality with intelligent mammals. This is largely because 
people have a good deal more information to go on. While sci- 
entific studies continue to reveal new aspects of animal behavior, 
media such as nature films bring the beasts into our living rooms 
every day of the week. Once we accept that those mammals 


have many of the same characteristics and needs that we do, it 
V,l Question of what sort of basic rights they deserve. 

Two centurt&^so, no one spoke of racism. The practice was so 
f»Jb ingrained tha^i&one thought of it as a kind of prejudice. Now 
£p^tfie*wbrd specigtAt is beginning to appear in the political arena. 
yy'" That trend-setlng California was trying to legislate how hard 
L r you can sock^aneelephant didn’t surprise me when I first heard 



First Touch 21 


the news. Coming at a time when wild elephants were being 
butchered for tusks and left to rot by the tens of thousands and 
Americans were still buying tons of ivory, the training method 
argument seemed slightly beside the point — or would have, 
were it not for the prospect that zoos might one day harbor the 
last living elephants. 

Zoos have increasingly become reservoirs for endangered 
species, taking on the role of artificial breeding grounds, always 
in the hope that a surplus might one day be transplanted back 
into a protected segment of the species’ original habitat. Lately, 
zookeepers have been working to standardize the commands 
used in elephant training so that animals shipped between facil- 
ities in the hope of building reproductive social groups can be 
more easily handled. Yet in all of North America there have 
been no successful births of African elephants and only fifty-odd 
births of Asian elephants. The breeding physiology and psy- 
chology of these animals is still not well enough defined. 

I had assumed that people in Asia knew all about breeding el- 
ephants in captivity. Hadn’t the giants been part of their cultures 
for thousands of years, hauling timber, plowing fields, trans- 
porting goods and royalty, and waging war as the prototype of 
tanks? Of course, the zoo people told me, but breeding a tame 
female would have meant taking her out of the work force for 
nearly five years at a stretch — twenty-two months of gestation 
followed by two to three years of nursing — and then having to 
wait several more years until the youngster was old enough to 
begin serious training. The Asians had always found it more ex- 
pedient to capture subadult elephants from the wild and break 
them to harness. Besides, no one much wanted to have to deal 
with tame elephants thundering around in a courtship frenzy. 
And many Asians considered a wild-caught elephant to be ulti- 
mately less dangerous than an elephant raised among people, for 
the captive-raised animal would never have the wild one’s innate 
fear of humans. 

About 40 percent of the births of Asian elephants in North 
America have been at Portland’s Washington Park Zoo, where 
chief veterinarian Mike Schmidt and researcher Lois Rasmussen 



ai The Fate of the Elephant 

have been analyzing the chemistry of blood and urine for many 
years to chart oestrous cycles. The female named Rosie has given 
birth to six calves here, a record for the Western Hemisphere. 
Shortly before one of those births, zoo handlers moved Rosie’s 
best friend, an old female named Tuy Hoa, to another stall be- 
cause she was nearing death and the handlers didn’t want the 
public to see an elephant dying. Rosie delayed her calf's birth a 
half-hour, then an hour, then a day. Four days later, they put luy 
Hoa back with Rosie, and Rosie delivered within an hour. 

Females are in heat for only a very short period — twenty-four 
to forty-eight hours out of every sixteen weeks. They tend to be 
fairly choosy about which male they will accept, and the whole 
affair can be easily disrupted by the presence of humans. Arti- 
ficial insemination is an alternative. Males are held in a crush, a 
hydraulically powered metal version of the squeeze chute made 
of logs that is used in Asia to immobilize elephants, and then 
electroej aculated to collect sperm. One 13,000-pound Asian bull 
broke every metal door ever put on the crush, and no one has 
tried to put him in since. Another has been electroej aculated 
more than 130* times. Despite nearly a decade of efforts, how- 
ever, successful impregnation of a female through such methods 
continues to elude Schmidt and his colleagues. 

Meanwhile, in San Diego, Alan Roocroft gathers support for 
his dream of a compound stretching over many acres where 
people could build a facsimile of the elephants’ natural habitat. 
Then, perhaps, the animals could rebuild their natural social 
structure and carry on with the creating and rearing of young 
die way elephants are supposed to. I know these are to be viewed 
as hopeful developments, but there remains in them something 
profoundly disheartening — something of an admission that an 
end to true wildness is possible, maybe even inevitable. I had 
started off my assignment by looking at what might be the fu- 
ture. Now, I began booking flights to such elephant country as 
remained in the present. 



TWO 


The Past 


I515l5l!g The demise of the dinosaurs marked the end of 
the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago and was followed by 
the Paleocene epoch, which lasted until 54 million years ago. 
The Paleocene is usually considered the beginning of the Age of 
Mammals. Yet it was barely under way when a different cate- 
gory of dinosaurs once again established a sort of rule. These 
were the ones whose scales had been modified into feathers. 
These were the birds, which taxonomists now lump together 
with dinosaurs as archosaurs. In existence as far back as the Ju- 
rassic period, they were well prepared to fill some of the niches 
that the reptiles had suddenly left vacant. Where fast, two- 
legged, sharp-toothed dinosaurs such as Struthiomimus had 
stalked, now huge, flightless, cruel-beaked birds such as Dia- 
tryma , the terror crane, lorded it over the scurrying little 
mammals. 

The Paleocene had empty niches left for mammals as well, 
and it was therefore a time of unprecedented opportunity. Even- 
tually, the existing groups of mammals began to develop forms 
large enough to withstand the terror birds and, in some cases, 
compete with them as predators. As the mammals continued to 
radiate into available niches, they produced entirely new taxo- 
nomic orders. Among them was one called the Proboscidae, af- 
ter the Latin proboscis , meaning nose. In the distant future, it 
would include elephants. But from where or which creatures the 
Erst proboscideans came, no one is certain. 

If we look among living animals for the species most closely 
related to elephants, we End ourselves off among the manatees 
and dugongs, commonly called sea cows. Highly streamlined 



24 Thb Fate of the Elephant 

for swimming, they are the sole truly aquatic herbivores among 
mammals. In common with elephants, they have thick, dense 
bones and a pattern of tooth succession in which new molars 
grow in at the rear of the jaw and migrate toward the front to 
replace old ones. And, like elephants, the females have notice- 
able mammary glands located on their chest, rather than on their 
abdomen as most mammals do. This is one reason manatees and 
dugongs are believed to have spawned legends of mermaids, 
soft-breasted sirens of the seas. 

The only other living kin of elephants are furry scramblers 
that can just about fit into your coat pocket — the hyraxes, native 
to Africa and southwest Asia. Tree hyraxes sleep in holes in tree 
trunks by day and forage in the forest canopy at night. That is 
when campers new to such woods sit bolt upright every few 
minutes, sure that a leopard is going berserk on a branch just 
above their tent, for the little tree hyrax’s territorial proclama- 
tion is an outrageous crescendo of growling croaks and shrieks 
that can be heard two miles away. Rock hyraxes tend to live in 
colonies on stony outcroppings anywhere from the plains to the 
mountaintops,* grazing on surrounding vegetation during day- 
light hours. Both kinds of hyraxes display upper incisors that 
have developed into little tusks, and both have curiously ele- 
phantlike feet with padded bottoms and broad nails at the base 
of the toes. Still, the very largest among them are barely the size 
of a woodchuck. 

The sea cows, order Sirenia, and hyraxes, order Hyracoidea, 
are classified together with the Proboscidae in the superorder 
Subungulata. But that doesn’t really tell us much more than we 
knew before about what sort of beast the proboscideans actually 
came from. The best paleontologists can do is theorize a gener- 
alized marsh-dweller roughly the size of a pig. Fossil beds from 
the late Eocene epoch in North Africa have yielded a short- 
legged swamp inhabitant of that sort named Moeritherium that is 
often held up as an example of the earliest true proboscideans. 
Some taxonomists regard Moeritherium as atypical, pointing out 
that it appears more highly specialized for amphibious life in the 
manner of a hippopotamus than other proboscideans were. But 



The Past 25 

then some taxonomists see this as all the more evidence of a 
common ancestry with early manatees and dugongs. 

Later proboscideans appear to have remained strongly asso- 
ciated with swampy habitats. The trunk, formed by a fusion of 
the upper lip, palate, and nostrils, gradually lengthened over 
time. Possibly, this organ made it easier for the animal to gather 
submerged vegetation while moving along the shores of a marsh 
and through shallow water. In that respect, it could be viewed as 
a unique alternative to developing a longer neck — an alternative 
that enabled the animal to keep its head high enough to spot po- 
tential danger as it fed. But who is to say that the trunk didn’t 
originally develop in part as a kind of snorkel and scent detector 
for animals that spent a lot of time in deeper water? The only 
other large mammals with trunks are the tapirs. Theirs is little 
more than a long snout by comparison, but it is a prehensile one, 
capable of grasping vegetation and drawing it into the mouth to 
be eaten. Although tapirs are not related to proboscideans, they 
frequent wet areas and are known to submerge completely at 
times to feed on aquatic plants. It may be that the proboscidean 
trunk originated because it offered some advantage in watery 
areas, then elongated for different reasons — such as the simple 
fact that the animals were also developing longer and longer 
tusks, which would have made it more difficult to eat directly 
with their mouths. 

Whatever the case, the proboscideans’ approach worked. 
They proliferated into almost two hundred species and spread to 
every continent except Antarctica and Australia. This spectrum 
of trunked and tusked creatures can be sorted into three distinct 
suborders. The first contains the deinotheres, better described as 
hoe-tuskers. Their tusks formed from their lower incisors and 
curved downward from the tip of the jaw. Paleontologists spec- 
ulate that such specialized teeth were used to rake or dig food; a 
common-sense conclusion. But we can’t rule out the possibility 
that the tusk shape developed primarily in association with 
fighting or courtship patterns instead. 

The second suborder is that of the mastodonts. It includes 
true mastodons and another family called gomphotheres, de- 



26 Thb Fate of the Elephant 

scribed as shovel-tuskers because of their broad, flattened lower 
incisors. Again, common sense suggests that the shovels were 
used to scoop up aquatic plants in conjunction with an elongated 
lower jaw that was itself a sort of shovel. Certain of these species 
might have used their lower tusks more like spades to dig up nu- 
tritious tubers, or even like chisels to strip bark and branches 
from trees. Like some hoe-tuskers, some shovel-tuskers carried 
upper tusks as well. The true mastodons lacked lower tusks and 
were thought to have looked very similar to elephants. How- 
ever, their great molar teeth had rows of rounded, conelike pro- 
jections on the surface for chewing and grinding, whereas 
elephants and mammoths developed a maze of transverse ridges 
that were more efficient still in shredding mouthfuls of vegeta- 
tion. You could grate carrots on an elephant molar. The ridges 
consist of alternating layers of enamel, dentine, and cement. As 
the softer material wears away more quickly, the hardest layer is 
left projecting as an even sharper cutting edge. 

Elephants and mammoths are placed together in the family 
Elephantidae, which makes up the third and final suborder of 
proboscideans. Their ancestors apparently branched off from 
the mastodonts as early as the Miocene epoch, which lasted from 
26 million years ago until 7 million years ago. The Pleistocene 
epoch began roughly 2 million years ago. It was then that true 
mammoths, in the genus Mammuthus, came into their own, 
flourishing while the various Ice Ages waxed and waned, cov- 
ering a third of the planet’s land surface with glaciers and snow 
for thousands upon thousands of years at a stretch. 

Wooly mammoths, Mammuthus primigenius, were well adapt- 
ed to the demands of the subarctic steppes of North America 
and Eurasia, where they made their home. Generally speaking, 
as mammals of a given type extend northward in range, their 
bodies increase in bulk while the total amount of exposed sur- 
face area is reduced, the better to conserve precious heat. Wooly 
mammoths fit this pattern, known as Bergmann’s Rule. Com- 
pared to other elephant family members, their body was some- 
what compressed from head to rump, and their trunk was 
slightly shorter. They had small ears and a tail not much longer 



The Past 27 

than a deer's. They also had the same kind of double fur coat as 
found on large mammals in northern climes today: a dense, in- 
sulating, inner coat of fine wool covered by a long, shaggy coat 
of coarse guard hairs such as you might see blowing sideways on 
a musk ox or mountain goat in the northern wind. For extra in- 
sulation, wooly mammoths had a three-inch-thick fat layer un- 
der the skin, plus a reserve of fat stored in a hump above the 
shoulders. Judging from the way the tusks swept down to form 
a broad bow close to the ground, they might have been impor- 
tant in plowing snow away from food supplies. Then again, that 
possibility might make more sense to us than it did to the mam- 
moths, which might not have needed or used such a plow. 

Ice Age experts Dale and Mary Lee Guthrie have presented 
evidence that with so much available water locked up within the 
ice pack, much of the subarctic region not covered by glaciers 
was drier than it is today. As a result, its soils thawed to a greater 
depth and supported richer plant communities. They included 
a lot of nutritious grasses where only low, slower-growing, 
tougher tundra vegetation with bitter chemicals for defense 
against grazing are found today. According to the Guthries, the 
greater variety and nutrition offered by steppe habitats during 
the Pleistocene go a long way toward explaining how grazing 
mammals could attain such great size and abundance in subarctic 
pastures. 

The word mammoth is synonymous with colossal, and a few, 
such as North America’s imperial mammoth, were very big in- 
deed — dose to fifteen feet high at the shoulder by some esti- 
mates. But most mammoths, including the wooly mammoth, 
were close to modern-day elephants in size. During interglacial 
periods, when melting ice sheets caused sea levels to rise and cut 
off certain outlying areas from the mainland, some populations 
stranded with a restricted food supply and a limited gene pool 
evolved into pygmy races. This was the case for mammoths iso- 
lated on California’s Santa Rosa Island, just a few miles across 
the channel from the huge mammoths of the mainland; one 
specimen of pygmy mammoth found there had an arrowhead 
embedded in the bone. The same downsizing process trans- 



at Tub Fate of the Elephant 

formed primitive elephants catted Palaeoloxodott on the islands of 
Crete, Cyprus, and Malta in the Mediterranean, creating dwarf 
species no more than three or four feet high at the shoulder. The 
remains of other pygmy elephants have been uncovered on is- 
lands in the Philippines and on Indonesian isles such as Java. 

Mastodonts were still thriving during the Pleistocene. While 
mammoths grazed the tundra and steppe, the mastodonts 
browsed the woodlands, generally occupying habitats farther 
south. A gomphothere called Cuvierottius, with shovellike lower 
tusks and spiraling upper tusks, dwelled in South America until 
the end of the last Ice Age, at which time all mastodonts and 
mammoths alike are thought to have died out. When European 
explorers invaded North America, they heard Indians from dif- 
ferent tribes claim that their great-grandfathers hunted creatures 
as tall as trees. Possibly they did. For all anyone knows, true 
mastodons may have survived in North America in a few pock- 
ets until relatively recent centuries. 

True elephants were also around during the Pleistocene.. The 
dominant form in Africa was the genus Elephas, which is 
thought to have arisen there and spread to Europe and Asia, 
eventually giving rise to the modern Asian elephant, Elephas 
maximus. Meanwhile, another true elephant genus, Loxodonta, 
had been evolving in Africa’s rainforests for at least 2 million 
years. Half a million years ago, it produced the modern African 
elephant, Loxodonta africana. Africa’s savannas and dry wood- 
lands held a species called Elephas iolensis until about 40,000 
years ago. When it disappeared, Loxodonta africana, the modem 
African elephant, spread from the rainforests to claim the rest of 
the continent as well. 

Proboscideans were not the largest land mammals this planet 
has produced. Some of the giant ground sloths and early 
rhinoceros-type titans matched the elephant line in size and oc- 
casionally exceeded it in any given age. During the Eocene and 
early Oligocene, there was even a minor order of hooved 
animals that scientists label pseudomastodonts because they 
evolved bodies of elephantine size along with the kind of thick, 
straight, columnlike legs typical of big proboscideans, plus 



The Past 29 

tusks, mastodontlike molars, and, judging from the structure of 
the skull’s nasal area, a fairly substantial trunk. The biggest land 
mammals discovered to date were Indricotherium and Baluchithe- 
rium, rhinoceros relatives eighteen feet high at the shoulder and 
thirty-five to thirty-seven feet long. 

Still, when taken as a group, the proboscideans were the most 
durable group of warm-blooded giants in history, consistently 
larger than any other order of terrestrial mammals through a 
longer period of time. This may be because they represented the 
best combination of great bulk and great intelligence. Whatever 
the reason, they dominated faunal communities through a major 
portion of Earth’s history since the passing of the dinosaurs. 
And now, of the many scores of different proboscideans that 
came into being, of all the truly gigantic beasts that have walked 
this planet since the very first amphibian wriggled out of the 
water onto a muddy Paleozoic shore, just two species remain. 

Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant, has an arched back, an 
enormous, domed head with relatively small ears, and a single 
protuberance, or “finger,” at the tip of its trunk. The front feet 
have five toes and the back feet have four. As a rule, only the 
males carry tusks; females have tushes — short second incisors 
that barely protrude past the upper lip — though an occasional fe- 
male is found with longer tusks. A large bull may weigh some 
six tons and stand a bit more than ten feet high at the shoulder. 
Adult females are about half the size of the largest males. The 
gestation period is between nineteen and twenty-two months, 
with male infants possibly requiring a slightly longer term than 
females. 

Loxodonta africana , the African elephant, has a straight back, a 
tapering head with enormous ears shaped like the African con- 
tinent, and two trunk “fingers.” The species is named for the 
lozenge-shaped ridges on its molar teeth. The ridges are fewer 
and coarser than those of Asian elephants. The African elephant 
has one less toe on each foot — four on the front feet and three on 



30 Thb Fats of the Elephant 

the back feet — but one more vertebra in the lumbar section of 
the spine. Both sexes carry tusks, and both are larger than their 
Asian counterparts. The biggest African bull on record weighed 
nine tons and stood more than twelve feet high at the shoulder 
In the British Museum are a pair of African male tusks with a 
combined weight of more than five hundred pounds. Females 
average about half the size of the largest males when fully 
grown. Gestation may be slightly longer than in the Asian 
elephant. 

Asian elephants inhabit India as well as Southeast Asia today. 
The species used to extend much farther northward and was still 
a resident of north-central China’s Honan province in 1500 B.c., 
during the time of the Shang, or Yin, Dynasty. Pakistan and Af- 
ghanistan also held populations in historical times. So did the 
Middle East region that takes in Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the focus 
of the Persian Empire. It was inhabited by Elephas maximus asu- 
rus, the largest Asian subspecies of all. During the sixteenth cen- 
tury b.c., an excursion into Syria by Thutmose III of Egypt*Was 
recorded by a loyal officer named Amenemhab: “Again I beheld 
another excellent deed which the Lord of Two Lands did in Niy. 
He hunted 120 elephants for the sake of their tusks. 1 engaged the 
largest among them, which fought against his majesty; I cut off 
his hand [trunk] while he was alive before his majesty, while I 
stood in the water between two rocks. Then my lord rewarded 
me with gold.” 

Asian elephants have been tamed for use in work and war 
since at least 3000 B.c. From India to Burma and Thailand, dy- 
nasties rose and fell on the backs of elephants. When Westerners 
think of war elephants, however, they are more likely to envi- 
sion Hannibal, leader of the Carthaginians, crossing the Alps 
with elephants to invade Italy in the third century b.c. 

Part of the popular tale holds that although Hannibal had pre- 
cious few elephants — he started off with thirty-eight and lost 
around thirty of those before he even met the Roman forces — 
the sight of the huge, trumpeting beasts filled his enemies with 
panic, giving him a rare advantage. That was probably not the 
case (though the sight would have panicked their horses). Ele- 



The Past 31 

phants were not really unheard of in that part of the world. 
Alexander the Great had met elephant armies as he swept east- 
ward to India in the fourth century b.c., and some of the cap- 
tured giants marched on with his columns as spoils of war. Then 
came Pyrrhus, the Greek who won notable victories against 
both Macedonians and Romans, though with such heavy losses 
among his own forces that people still use the term Pyrrhic vic- 
tory to describe an excessively costly gain. Pyrrhus employed 
elephants in his campaigns. They may have been part of his 
problems. One chronicle of the time claims that Pyrrhus was 
soundly thrashing the Romans when an elephant calf left behind 
while its mother carried troops into battle began squealing and 
bleating. The mother broke ranks to dash back for her calf. All 
the other female elephants followed and ended up busting a path 
through Pyrrhus’s legions rather than those of the Romans. 

If elephants were the prototype of tanks, they rather quickly 
spawned the development of anti-tank weapons: fire arrows; 
huge, wagon-mounted bows; battering rams with spiked tips; 
rows of spikes set in the ground; and cataphracts — warriors 
dressed in suits of armor studded with metal spikes to keep el- 
ephants from seizing them. 

The interesting thing is that no one yet knows for sure what 
species of elephants Pyrrhus or Hannibal had under his com- 
mand. The usual assumption is that they must have been Asian 
elephants. Trained Asian elephants were probably available from 
Persia and certainly from points farther east, and Carthage was 
the seat of a large trading empire. Besides, it is often said that 
African elephants can’t really be domesticated. On the other 
hand, Carthage was located in what is now Tunisia, and North 
Africa held plenty of herds of wild elephants, for the African el- 
ephant was once distributed throughout virtually the entire con- 
tinent. It is quite possible that the Carthaginians or the people of 
one of their subject states learned to train those animals. Or per- 
haps Asian elephant handlers were brought in to teach the tech- 
niques. That's what the Belgians did in Zaire several decades 
ago: they imported Burmese handlers, who succeeded in train- 
ing a small group of African elephants for logging work. Of 



32 The Fatb op the Elephant 

course, quite a few other African elephants have been trained in 
modem times to perform in zoos and circuses. 

Why weren’t African elephants ever domesticated on a larger 
scale, then? The answer takes us back to the differences between 
the two species. Almost all elephant people at zoos describe Af- 
rican elephants as being a bit more temperamental than Asian el- 
ephants — a bit wilder-eyed and “trunkier,” meaning that they 
are more exploratory and more likely to test you and everything 
else in their environment. Put another way, an African elephant 
might perform upon command perfectly nine times in a row; the 
tenth time, you might blink, or a door might slam shut nearby, 
or the animal may simply decide the elephant equivalent of “The 
hell with this trick; let’s see what you can do” — and you’re sud- 
denly in the middle of an elephant rodeo. With younger animals 
and certain females, handlers may be able to maintain a degree 
of control, but the sheer size of grown African bulls makes them 
simply too much to deal with, given this species’s extra measure 
of unpredictability. 

If those were African elephants the Carthaginians used, it may 
have had something to do with the fact that the North African 
subspecies was smaller than the typical African elephant. What- 
ever the subspecies’s other characteristics were, they are no 
more; North Africa’s last elephants vanished around the second 
century a.d., primarily because of the Roman Empire’s insatia- 
ble demand for ivory tusks. 

Not that the Romans didn’t think highly of elephants. They 
believed the giants worshipped the sun, moon, and stars. The 
Romans even minted a coin showing an elephant with its head 
uplifted toward the heavens Aristotle, tutor of Alexander the 
Great, had earlier described the elephant as “the beast that pass- 
eth all others in wit and mind. . . . and by its intelligence, it 
makes as near an approach to man as matter can approach 
spirit.” The great Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder de- 
voted the first and longest chapter in his survey of the animal 
kingdom to the elephant. Why? In an essay entitled “Man, the 
Sky and the Elephant: On Pliny’s Natural History ,” Italo Calvino 
says, “Because it is the largest of the animals, certainly, but also 



Thb Past 33 

and above all because it is the animal [Pliny calls] ‘closest to 
man*! ... In fact, the elephant — [Pliny] explains immediately 
afterward — recognizes the language of his homeland, obeys or- 
ders, remembers what he learns, knows the passion of love and 
the ambition of glory, practices virtues ‘rare even among men,’ 
such as probity, prudence, and equity. . . . The rites and cus- 
toms of elephant society are represented as those of a people 
with a culture different from ours, but nonetheless worthy of re- 
spect and understanding.” 

Nevertheless, wealthy Romans used ivory perhaps to a 
greater extent than any major civilization had before. In addition 
to collecting decorative ivory items from combs to scroll- 
holders, they used thin sheets of ivory for inlay and veneer on 
furniture of all kinds. They also used ivory for a type of statuary 
known as chryselephantine, in which the ivory represented the 
flesh of a figure while the clothing was done in gold. Chrysele- 
phantine was common in earlier empires of the Fertile Crescent, 
Egypt, and Crete. The Greeks were especially fond of this form 
of sculpture and often covered immense temple figures with 
ivory veneer, one of them being the famed forty-foot-tall statue 
of Athena made by Phidias for the Parthenon. (The Roman poet 
Ovid’s tale of a sculptor who fell in love with his own creation — 
a perfect rendering of a woman, done in ivory — was reworked 
by the English playwright George Bernard Shaw. The result, 
Pygmalion, in turn formed the basis of the popular Broadway 
musical. My Fair Lady.) A few Roman nobles had entire rooms 
constructed of ivory tiles. Ivory even served as currency in por- 
tions of the empire. 

Another use of ivory in ancient empires had to do with the be- 
lief that it could detect or, some believed, neutralize poison. Or- 
namental items such as a dagger with an ivory handle served a 
double purpose, since they could be dipped into suspect drinks 
or food. Ivory was also believed to have healing powers and a 
particular ability to cleanse the blood. Narwhal tusks and hippo 
teeth were valued for preventing poisoning and for healing in 
many parts of the ancient world before elephant ivory became 
more widely available and more popular. In all likelihood, the 



34 The Fate of the Elbfhant 

Roman market for ivory played a key part in eliminating Asian 
elephants from die eastern parts of their original range as well as 
in wiping out African elephants in the northern third of their 
range. 

“Recently . . . even the bones have begun to be cut into lay- 
ers,” Pliny wrote, “inasmuch as an ample supply of tusks is now 
rarely obtained except from India, all the rest in our world hav- 
ing succumbed to luxury.” 

Is it so surprising that the Romans could' hold a beast in such 
high esteem and still drive it to extinction in one area after an- 
other? They fashioned art that glorified the human form, and 
they created literature that gave a new nobility to the human 
spirit. Yet their empire’s growth was predicated on the subju- 
gation of other civilizations, and its labor force consisted largely 
of slaves. Audiences at the circus in Rome watched lions, bears, 
and elephants perform. They watched gladiators fight each 
other. And they also watched bears and lions and elephants fight 
each other, or fight the gladiators, or slaughter runaway slaves 
and Christian dissidents. Like lions, elephants were often used as 
public executioners. 

Though it would be fascinating to explore the Romans’ atti- 
tudes toward animal and human life in depth, it is hardly nec- 
essary in order to explain why they drove populations of the 
elephants they so admired to extinction. They thought ivory 
was a thing of splendor, wanted it, got it. They gave no more 
thought to where it came from than consumers in recent decades 
have. Compared to modern societies, the Romans had little in- 
formation about how wildlife in distant lands was faring. While 
elephants were disappearing due to ivory exploitation, Pliny 
was writing that the main natural enemies of elephants were 
known to be dragons. 


The order Primates came into being in the late Cretaceous days 
of the dinosaurs, long before the first proboscideans. The genus 
Homo appears to have been around for at least 2 million years. 



Thb Past 3$ 

about as long as either Elephas or Loxodonta. And modem hu- 
mans, Homo sapiens, emerged at roughly the same time in the 
Pleistocene that the modem Asian and African elephant species 
did. The relationships between early humans and proboscideans 
are unknown, but the remains of elephants in Stone Age human 
sites in Africa indicate that elephants were a prey item. We al- 
ready know that mammoth meat played a key role in sustaining 
the Stone Age cultures of Eurasia, while carved mammoth ivory 
stands as a sort of fossil record of their spirit. The Paleo-Indians 
who invaded the New World from Asia toward the end of the 
last Ice Age brought their mammoth-hunting traditions to a 
fauna that had never seen humans before. 

A great many large mammals vanished rather suddenly as the 
Pleistocene came to a close. Climatic change probably explains 
most of the losses among the megafauna. Yet many of the spe- 
cies that vanished had survived through earlier interglacial pe- 
riods with temperatures as warm as those today. The pertinent 
question, then, is: Would some of the species undergoing de- 
clines and struggling to readjust to shifting habitats have made it 
through this warming trend, too, had they not been subjected to 
intense hunting pressure from an expanding human population? 

By the time the Roman Empire flourished 10,000 years later, 
a microtick on the geologic dock, Homo sapiens had become a 
force of entirely new magnitude. It was as predatory as ever, but 
it no longer hunted just to obtain protein for migratory groups. 
Traditional hunting had been joined by commercial hunting to 
supply large, settled, agrarian-based populations with consumer 
goods. Populations had become highly concentrated m places 
and so had political power, spiritual authority, and capital. The 
highly stratified societies contained entire classes of people who 
paid others to acquire things for them. They used their wealth to 
accumulate goods that signified their wealth — luxury items, 
which in turn symbolized their power and prestige. 

The more highly prized a product derived from a wild species 
became, the scarcer the species itself became. This made the 
product still more costly, which m?de it more desirable to the 
elite, further increasing the pressure upon the species’s papula- 



36 The Fate op the Elephant 

dons. The trade connections of the Roman Empire in its glory 
extended to Ethiopia and beyond in Africa and across Asia to 
China through Indian intermediaries. Thus, the demand for 
ivory by affluent consumers in urban hubs such as Rome, Al- 
exandria, and other major cities throughout the empire affected 
the lives of elephants thousands of miles distant. Here was a 
story that would recur many times in many places over the cen- 
turies to come. 

However, it was probably not ivory consumption alone that 
squeezed the largest of all native inhabitants out of the Middle 
East and northern Africa. Most likely, it was overhunting com- 
bined with destruction of forests and the degradation of other 
habitat, a relationship seen throughout elephant range today. 

A good deal of the greater Mediterranean region, from Tur- 
key to Algeria and Morocco, supported robust stands of cedar, 
oak, and other large trees. These contributed to the rise of the 
great early civilizations there and provided the raw material for 
the ocean-going fleets that spurred trade and the spread of cul- 
tural advances. But the timberlands were soon being overcut to 
supply more ships, more pillars and beams, and more fuel, and 
to make room for more grazing and agriculture. The Roman 
empire placed further demands on the dwindling forests of vas- 
sal states and trading partners. Elephants found themselves with 
less and less good cover in which to take refuge from pursuers, 
and less and less suitably productive acreage in which they could 
recover their numbers if hunting pressure eased a bit. In the end, 
landscapes that once supported giants often became hard- 
pressed to support goats — or, for that matter, humans. And al- 
though many a dusty veil hides the details of history from our 
eyes, we can look directly at sub-Saharan Africa — Mali, Niger, 
Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia — and see the latter stages of a 
very similar process of desertification underway at the mo- 
ment — complete with the impoverishment of, first, native wild- 
life and, then, our own species. 



THREE 


East Africa: 
Amboseli 


ISISISIS" When people from other continents envision 
African wildlife, they usually call to mind pageants of beasts 
making their way across tallgrass savannas dotted with thorn 
trees. Whether they know it or not, they are envisioning habitats 
typical of East Africa. More specifically still, they are envision- 
ing scenes from the nature reserves of Kenya and Tanzania. That 
is where most of the films and photographs of African wildlife 
have come from and where most of the safari tdurs go. A dis- 
proportionate amount of scientific research on African wildlife 
has come from these areas as well. This is not to say that equally 
rich wildlife communities cannot be found in other parts of the 
continent — only that Kenya and Tanzania are preferred. 

For good reason. Visibility on the high, open plains along 
the Rift Valley is ideal for naturalists and photographers. The 
weather is more than cooperative — generally dry and sunny, yet 
pleasantly cool from evening through the early morning hours 
— and the green highland slopes where sunbirds sing from flow- 
ering flame trees are paradisiacal. Both Kenya and Tanzania are 
reasonably stable and fairly easy to get around in. English is still 
widely spoken in these former British colonies. Things such as 
telephones, petrol stations, permit offices, and hospitals are op- 
erative, which is the last thing you can count on in a number of 
other African countries. 

Tanzania had a brief fling with Marxist economics in recent 
years, and for a while things there did not work so well. Some 



38 The Fate of the Elephant 

feared that this country might follow the path of Uganda, 
whose once exemplary complex of East African parklands has 
been disintegrating along with the rest of the nation’s infrastruc- 
ture through years of political and economic chaos. But Tanza- 
nia has lately loosened its centralized planning schemes, begun 
to encourage private enterprise, and pushed hard to win back 
lost tourism. Kenya meanwhile consolidated its position as the 
main focus of people interested in African, wildlife. Tourism 
there generates more than half a billion U.S. ’ dollars in foreign 
exchange annually, making it Kenya’s single most important 
source of outside income, with coffee exports from its highlands 
a distant second. The capital, Nairobi, serves as the hub of an in- 
ternational community of scientists and conservationists. 

I got off the airplane in Nairobi close to midnight, at once 
dopey with jet lag and wired with the slightly paranoid energy 
that comes from entering someone else’s sovereign territory, no 
matter how often I do it. It was late February of 1989. 1 had come 
through here a couple of years earlier to climb Mount Kenya, or, 
rather, to climb the lowest and easiest of the three summits of 
Mount Kenya. 'At that time, a photographer I got to know on the 
flight over had to pay $800 in bribes before the customs people 
let all his equipment through. His documents were all in order, 
and he probably could have demanded to go through the official 
procedure of paying duty instead and saved some money. But 
they would have made sure that he lost several days in the pro- 
cess. He could pay them or pay to stay in a hotel while he drove 
himself crazy trying to deal with mysteriously sluggish paper- 
work. That was the game. They knew it, and he knew it. So he 
paid. 

This time, I was carrying quite a bit of camera gear myself 
and trying to get straight in my mind how to play things if 
someone put the touch on me when a platoon of soldiers in full 
battle dress raced into the building. They swarmed up the stairs 
to take positions all along the balcony of die second floor, with 
weapons — semiautomatic G-3 rifles, from the look of them — 
partially raised and ready. Ready for what? A major smuggling 
bust? A hijacking? An attempted coup? Maybe it was just that a 



East Africa: Amboseli 


39 


Big Man was about to catch a flight out. No one on the floor 
other than a few tourists seemed overly concerned, so I humped 
my bags toward customs and pushed unhesitatingly up to the 
counter as if I had nothing else on my mind but a hotel bed, 
which wasn’t hard to fake. 

Customs was a piece of cake. The hundreds of us who had 
spilled out of the jumbo jet were ready to exchange a bit of cur- 
rency and depart for the city. Midnight arrived just then, and all 
but one of the currency exchange booths closed. I queued with 
everyone else at the remaining booth to get at least enough 
Kenya shillings for cab fare and spent the better part of the next 
hour taking little steps toward the counter and making propri- 
etary nudges with my elbows while the troops stared down from 
the balcony and signaled to one another, gun muzzles wagging 
in the fluorescent lights. Someone outside was yelling in Swa- 
hili. A Japanese couple in American T-shirts were trying to cal- 
culate the exchange rate with the help of a Muslim businessman 
in a traditional robe and lace cap. A young American clad from 
headband to toe in camouflage chic, ready to meet the wild king- 
dom, was being hauled off toward a back room, having violated 
a Kenya law forbidding civilians to dress up like soldiers. Mon- 
tana was a long way on the other side of the turnstiles and im- 
migration barriers now. Right. Here we go: elephants. 


The central fact about elephants at the time of my visit was that 
they were dying at a rate of three hundred per day in Africa. The 
reasons were myriad and complex, but could be distilled to one 
basic, familiar driving force spelled M-O-N-E-Y. Easy M-O- 
N-E-Y. Almost unimaginable amounts of M-O-N-E-Y. Ivory, 
which sold for a few U.S. dollars a kilo back in the early 1970s, 
was going for $200 a kilo and up. Prize tusks weighing twenty 
kilos or more apiece fetched $300 a kilo and up; had the animals 
borne tusks of solid silver instead, such teeth would have been 
worth considerably less, figuring silver at its current price of $5 
to $6 an ounce. 



40 Thb Fate of thb Elephant 

Those were the retail prices for ivory. The poachers got only 
a percentage, but it was as much as $20 to Iso a kilo. In a part of 
the world where the average annual income is a couple of hun- 
dred dollars a year — the combined per capita income from all of 
Africa south of the Sahara is roughly equal to the combined per 
capita income of Belgium — this was more than enough incen- 
tive to drop whatever else you were doing and rush out to begin 
looting the countryside of its elephants. Byen a half-grown an- 
imal’s tusks could be worth a couple of years’ wages. It was as if 
the moose in North America were suddenly worth $25,000 min- 
imum, with the biggest ones fetching more than a quarter of a 
million dollars. I wonder how long they would last. 

Many of the . Westerners to whom I spoke before leaving for 
Africa were under the impression that most of the elephant kill- 
ing had to do with small farmers protecting their crops and huts 
and hungry tribesmen trying to bring in some meat. “It’s a 
shame about the elephants, but you can’t blame those people,” 
they’d say. “They’re only trying to feed their families.” These 
same Westerners tended to think of rural Africa in terms of 
scenes from' East Africa’s wildlife reserves. They imagined is- 
lands of human settlement surrounded by a sea of wildlife. 

The reality is that by the 1950s, Africa’s human population 
was already soaring. Somewhere around the 1960s it reached 
critical mass, and it has been increasing exponentially ever since, 
causing more and more wildlife habitat to be converted to crop- 
land and livestock pastures ever closer to existing reserves. The 
result is modern-day Africa, where islands of natural commu- 
nities lie surrounded by a sea of humanity. Having quadrupled 
since the turn of the century, this continent’s population is on its 
way toward doubling within the next two decades. There are 
no longer many more wild creatures roaming between pro- 
tected areas in most nations than you would expect to find in 
rural landscapes of the United States or Europe. For example, 
Rwanda, where the mountain gorillas studied by Dian Fossey 
live among the mist-shrouded Virunga Volcanoes, has a popu- 
lation density of 670 people per square mile, a higher figure than 
for India. By comparison, France has about 270 people per 



East Africa: Ambosbli 41 

square mile. Although outsiders continue to cherish a different 
vision, Africans, too, have to go to parks and zoos to see African 
wildlife these days. 

During the early part of this transformation, a lot of elephants 
did die in conflicts over food and living space; some still do. 
Small-scale poaching for meat was common; it still is in some 
places. A fair amount of ivory found its way into the tourist trin- 
ket market. And tourism was growing rapidly, in part because 
modern jet airplanes had made international travel so much 
faster and easier. Efficient air transport was also making it easier 
for goods such as ivory to reach international markets. Ivory be- 
came more widely available and more heavily purchased, and 
the price began to increase in a simple expression of the law of 
supply and demand. Smalltime meat poachers started paying 
more attention to the tusks. The commercial poaching networks 
that dealt in rhino horn and spotted-cat skins had already started 
to move in when two other multipliers entered the price 
equation. 

One was the worldwide rise in commodity prices during the 
1 970s, led by oil and accompanied by the onset of widespread 
economic uncertainty. Traders in nations trying to cope with al- 
ternating bouts of recession and inflation noted that ivory con- 
tinued to hold its price or increase. Suddenly elephant incisor 
teeth became more than an object of beauty. They became a full- 
fledged commodity themselves, a hedge against future hard 
times. Increasingly, people began to buy, sell, and speculate in 
raw ivory as they would with corn futures or real estate. 

The second multiplier was the growing affluence of Asian na- 
tions that were emerging as economic powerhouses. Their de- 
mand for ivory both as a luxury item and as a commodity was 
huge. Added to the existing demand from the Western world, it 
soon sent the price of ivory skyrocketing into the rarefied realm 
where the likes of gold, rhinoceros horn, diamonds, and hard 
drugs mingle with potent human fantasies and cravings. Ele- 
phants would start to undergo drastic declines, but with the law 
of supply and demand still in full forpe, scarcity only increased 
the price of ivory and the pressure on the surviving animals. 



4* Tub Pats of the Elephant 


Regulations on ivory trading existed through CITES, the 
Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species, es- 
tablished under U.N. auspices during the 1970s. Since 1986, 
each country has been allowed to export only a given quota of 
tusks based upon what officials believed could be taken without 
harming existing populations. In practice, the wildlife inspec- 
tion and customs paperwork was easy to subvert, especially 
since bribery was already standard procedure in many places. 
With a little extra under-the-table money, poached elephants 
could be listed as having been shot as crop raiders, or a false fig- 
ure could be given for the total number of tusks. Or the tusks 
could be smuggled into a country with a higher export quota. 

For example, the small nation of Burundi, with a population 
density of about 490 people per square mile, has not had one 
wild elephant living within its borders for years. Everyone knew 
it, but no one had bothered to prove it beyond a doubt. So Bu- 
rundi applied to CITES for high export quotas, was granted 
them, and proceeded to ship out thousands upon thousands of 
tusks from elephants shot in neighboring nations. On the re- 
ceiving end,- importers employed the same combination of pay- 
offs and doctored papers to hide the fact that they received far 
more tusks from certain sources than could be legitimately ac- 
counted for. Or they simply slipped them through in packages 
labeled as museum specimens, bones, minerals, native African 
village craftwork, and a hundred other things. 

Several different attempts were made by CITES officials to 
tighten controls on the ivory trade. Each time, the dealers man- 
aged to quickly circumvent them. If they couldn’t get around 
the restrictions where they were doing business, they moved to 
someplace where they could, shifting ivory factories, carvers, 
dummy corporations, and retail outlets from Hong Kong to 
Macao to Singapore to Taiwan to portions of the Philippines and 
Thailand, always one step ahead of the undercover investigators 
from conservation groups, two thoughts more clever than the 
bureaucrats, and richer than everyone. 

CITES decided to clamp down on the export of raw tusks by 
permitting only worked ivory — the finished products of artists 
or artisans — to flow along certain routes. Within weeks, die 



East Africa: Amboseii 43 

same volume of ivory was traveling along the same routes as be- 
fore, except that now the tusks had a couple of rings or cross- 
hatch patterns scratched onto one end. They were officially 
worked ivory — an expression of craftsmanship. The United Arab 
Emirates (UAE) withdrew from CITES, meaning that it no 
longer agreed to abide by international regulations on wildlife 
products. CITES could issue new edicts until it grew hoarse; they 
didn’t apply there. Almost overnight, there were Hong Kong 
ivory factories staffed with itinerant workers from throughout 
the Far East in the heart of the UAE city of Dubai, carving el- 
ephant teeth while praises to Allah rang out from mosque towers 
toward the desert sands. 

Eventually, ivory turned into an international underground 
currency, outlaw capital, spawning webs of corruption from re- 
mote rural villages to urban centers throughout the globe. The 
parallel to the drug business was striking, from the outrageous 
profit margins to the level of violence involved. In Asia, ivory 
was being smuggled out of Burma along with heroin and 
opium. Many African poachers resembled the field forces of 
drug operations in the Golden Triangle and Colombia: they trav- 
eled in large, well-armed, paramilitary gangs supported by ve- 
hicles, radios, an occasional spotting plane, and a network of 
informants that sometimes reached to the highest levels of gov- 
ernment. Their weapon of choice was the semiautomatic rifle or 
machine gun. Few ever stopped to take so much as one steak 
from the tons of meat left lying to rot after the tusks were hacked 
out of the animals with an axe or chain saw. 

Some poachers were more than paramilitary. They were the 
military themselves — or the police, or, not uncommonly, the 
wildlife rangers and wardens in a given area. In quite a few re- 
gions of quite a few nations, the only risk a local poacher faced 
from those in authority came if he failed to give them their cut 
of the profits. 


The situation in East Africa when I visited was this: Tanzania’s 
elephants had dropped from nearly 230,000 in the early 1970s to 



44 The Fate of the Elephant 

55,000; Uganda’s from 20,000 to barely 1000, headed fast toward 
zero. Kenya, home to 140,000 elephants in 1970, held perhaps 
16,000, and there was what amounted to a small-scale war over 
elephants under way in the country. 

At first, Kenya’s park rangers had tried to deal with elephant 
poaching as part of their overall duties. When that proved hope- 
less, the government created antipoaching units (APUs) from 
the best qualified among the ranger ranks and gave them special 
training. This proved no match for the scal6 of illegal elephant 
killing either. Kenya then assigned government service units 
(GSUs) from its military and police forces to the task as well and 
gave them more and better equipment. They were also given the 
discretion to gun down suspected poachers on sight. 

The main result of the shoot-to-kill directive was to make the 
poachers less likely than ever to give up without a fight. Kenya’s 
daily newspapers were full of reports of running gun battles be- 
tween government forces and poachers, human body counts, el- 
ephant body counts, raids, arrests, and trials. Politicians traded 
charges and countercharges, accusing one another of incompe- 
tency or outright involvement in the underground ivory busi- 
ness. Even with the upbeat tone'the papers tended to use when 
chronicling the government’s latest antipoaching efforts, it was 
clear that this war’s outcome was very much in doubt. At one 
point, I learned, a GSU patrol was advancing through part of 
the hard-hit Tsavo National Park area when a man in a ranger 
uniform burst into view ahead of them, waving frantically to 
them to follow. They did. But he was a poacher, and it was an 
ambush. Badly shot up, the GSU radioed for back-up. An APU 
squad raced to the rescue. As they arrived, the poachers dis- 
solved into the bush, and the GSU troops began firing into the 
APU squad, thinking that more poachers in uniform were 
attacking. 

As I began making my rounds in Nairobi to introduce myself 
to people directly involved with elephant conservation, the crisis 
atmosphere grew palpable each time I crossed the threshold into 
an office. These people, too, considered themselves locked in 
combat. Many of them had been dug in there battling and los- 



East Afkica: Ambosbli 4$ 

ing, chewing on rage and sorrow, in relative isolation for years. 
Although they had not been able to slow down the pace of illicit 
ivory trading, they had at least succeeded in awakening the 
world to the scale of the slaughter. All at once, everyone seemed 
to be looking at Africa — which meant, in large part, looking at 
Kenya — to see what the elephant’s fate would be. I discovered 
that I was one of scores of magazine and television journalists 
traipsing through the same office bunkers. 

Elephants were prime time. They were hot. But they were 
still dying. Because people kept buying ivory. Of every hundred 
dead elephants, ivory sales to Japan ultimately accounted for 
forty. And what of the West, so fond of wild creatures? The Eu- 
ropean Community took twenty-five of that same hundred, and 
the U.S. demand for ivory claimed fifteen, for a total of forty 
between them. Among conservationists, there was a sense that 
the situation was so desperate and so shameful that it could not 
continue, and a sense of confoundment that it was continuing 
anyway. Month after month, the news feed kept going out, the 
world stayed tuned, the poachers went on killing elephants, and 
the illegal traders kept shipping unprecedented quantities of 
tusks all around the globe. 

If ivory was traded like drugs and made fortunes like drugs, 
was it going to prove as resistant to all efforts at control as drugs? 
Rhino horn had. Used for ceremonial dagger handles in various 
Arab nations, notably Yemen, and ground into an aphrodisiac 
powder in the Far East, it had risen in value until it sold by the 
ounce on a par with cocaine. And in defiance of every protective 
measure, poachers went on to wipe out both black rhinos and 
white rhinos from one country after another, reducing a popu- 
lation of hundreds of thousands to, at most, 5000. Outside 
southern Africa, where nearly all of the survivors remained, 
both species had become ecologically extinct — too few and scat- 
tered to play their normal role in wildlife communities. Only 
handfuls could be found here and there, most of them huddled 
within specially fenced and guarded enclosures. Even that was 
not always enough to ensure their safety. Shortly before my 
visit, an East African poaching gang had surrounded one such 



46 Thb Fate of the Elephant 


enclosure and held the guards at gunpoint while systematically 
executing every last rhino. 

Understandably, the wildlife and conservation people in Nai- 
robi were completely absorbed in the current stage of their 
struggle, which they saw as being waged against not only 
poachers but ineffective bureaucracies, crooked wildlife offi- 
cials — and biologists and conservationists within their own 
ranks who promoted unworkable solutions. That is what they 
wanted to talk about. 1 wanted to talk about it, too, but not just 
yet. Before I jumped into a whirlpool of events and opinions, I 
wanted some time alone with the beasts in the bush, for much 
the same reason I had wanted to start off this project by getting 
my hands on live elephants in zoos. I did not yet feel that I under- 
stood enough about the animals’ nature and potential to com- 
prehend what was really being lost, much less to choose sides in 
the ongoing debates. 1 was in Nairobi to make some key con- 
tacts, set up the logistics for later trips, and then get out — out 
among free-roaming herds of elephants to learn what I could di- 
rectly from them before I picked up anyone else’s prejudices or 
expectations. 


I had a particular group of wild elephants in mind: those of the 
Amboseli Reserve, where southern Kenya borders Tanzania. 
These herds had been more intensively studied than any others 
on the continent. Luckily — most luckily, from the standpoint of 
understanding these animals — they were also among the few 
whose social structure and traditions had not yet been disrupted 
by rampant illegal killing. 

Cynthia Moss, an American and former Nairobi-based jour- 
nalist, began studying elephant society in Amboseli during the 
1970s. Over the years, she built a history for each family unit, 
chronicling new generations, the passing of the old, and changes 
in relationships within and between kin groups. This is similar 
to the way an anthropologist might study a tribe of people, and 
it is how some of the most revealing studies of other mammals 
are accomplished. 



East Africa: Amboseli 47 


I met with Cynthia while I was still in Nairobi. We made 
polite introductory conversation and discussed her recently 
published book Elephant Memories, a popular account of the be- 
havior and ecology of Amboseli’s giants. Throughout its pages, 
she had avoided emotional interpretations and maintained the 
tone of an objective scientist, but it was plain between the lines 
that she was in love with her subjects. I asked how it had been 
for her to watch and wait through Kenya’s debacle, and she sud- 
denly caught her breath. 1 looked at her more closely and realized 
that she was struggling to keep back the tears welling up in her 
eyes. 

After taking a moment to compose herself, Cynthia said, 
“I’ve been deeply depressed for about a year. I thought it was 
only a matter of time until Amboseli got hit. Massacred. Am- 
boseli has about a million dollars’ worth of ivory — retail. If it 
weren’t for the heavy tourist traffic and for the presence of us re- 
searchers, who are there even in the off-season, I’m not sure we 
would have elephants in Amboseli now. The scarcer elephants 
become everywhere else, the harder the poachers are going to be 
eyeing this place. You start to wonder about every person you 
see coming through the countryside: Is he sizing up the place for 
an assault? I struck rock bottom in November.” 

Cynthia’s mentor in the early period of her research was Iain 
Douglas-Hamilton. Iain and his wife, Oria, carried out the first 
in-depth research on elephant social behavior, working in Tan- 
zania’s Manyara National Park during the 1960s. The Douglas- 
Hamiltons finally gave up their ground-breaking investigations 
in order to devote their considerable energies to saving elephants 
because they had seen what they thought was a drastic decline in 
numbers in many regions. They undertook the first continent- 
wide surveys of elephant populations in order to lay a solid 
foundation for conservation action. They have been counting el- 
ephants and trying to rally support for the animals ever since. 

And now Cynthia was phasing out her own investigations to 
become a full-time spokesperson for the elephants, she informed 
me. The Amboseli project would bfe carried on by her long-time 
colleague Joyce Poole, though for how long was difficult to say. 
Joyce was contemplating leaving Amboseli to survey the ruins 



48 The Fatb op the Elephant 

of elephant populations elsewhere in an effort to help salvage 
them. 

I was on the verge of becoming as gloomy about the future of 
elephants as everyone else seemed to be before I had gotten be- 
yond my first hotel in my first country on this story. I called 
Joyce at a lodge in Amboseli, and it was refreshing to hear her 
trumpet, “Oh, the elephants are so happy. There’s green grass 
everywhere after the rains. The elephants are just fat and sassy. 
They’re playful, and I see mating going on all over the place. 
Hurry down. It’s wonderful.” I did, and it was. 

The rains Joyce spoke of were harbingers of the long rains 
that would begin in March and last until May, soaking the 
ground with a succession of rolling storms. After the lushness, 
after the flowerings, would come six to eight months of heat and 
ever drier, dustier landscapes that would check up on each plant- 
eating animal’s survival strengths. In good years, the grip of dry 
weather would be broken by the short rains, or little rains, that 
fall as light showers between late autumn and early winter. 

Much of Amboseli is almost perfectly flat and open, for it is 
the bed of an old alkaline lake ^rown up into savanna with salt- 
tolerant grasses and brush. Distant hills, some so low they can 
scarcely be seen except at dawn and sunset, mark the ancient 
lake’s shores on several sides. On the southwest side, just across 
the border in Tanzania, rises Mount Kilimanjaro, 19,340 feet tall. 
Its glacier-covered summit is the first and last thing lit by the 
sun, shining forth above the indistinct, blue-distant slopes as if 
it were hovering there unsupported and giving birth to the 
world below anew each day. By midmorning, the first clouds in 
a clear sky will have begun to coalesce around the upper reaches 
of this volcano and stream off to create weather across the rest 
of the land. 

After adding East Africa to his Abyssinian Empire, King 
Menelik I, the conquering son of the Hebrew King Solomon 
and Queen Sheba, is said to have rested on the saddle between 
two of Kilimanjaro’s main peaks, Mawenzi and Kibo, where the 
gods dwell. He found himself weary beyond tiredness and knew 
that death was approaching; so he gathered his slaves and loaded 



East Afsica: Amboseli 49 


them with all the treasures he had gained. Then he led them into 
the crater of Kibo, and there in the exhalations of hot, sulfurous 
mist they all vanished together. One day, the legend adds, a suc- 
cessor to Menelik’s line will recover the hoard from Kibo and in 
it will find the seal ring of Solomon. Slipping it onto his finger, 
he will feel the wisdom of his great ancestor upon his own brow 
and the power of his heritage surging through his limbs, and he 
will emerge to restore Ethiopia to its former glory. 

A substance equally precious — water, from Kilimanjaro’s gla- 
ciers and snowfields — percolates down through the volcanic ash 
and cinder to resurface as springs at the foot of the mountain on 
the Kenya side. Around the springs have formed swamps of 
tall, papyruslike reeds and succulent grasses, oases in the rain- 
shadow of the highest mountain in Africa. They are the heart of 
Amboseli. 

Even the sunburned alkali pans, where the dust devils whirl 
their short lives away, had a glaze of green as I drove into the re- 
serve. The taller grasses hid hours-old wildebeest, born in antic- 
ipation of the long rains that would bring forth real lushness 
from the land by the time they stopped suckling regularly. 
Thompson’s gazelles looked up from their feeding as zebra stal- 
lions chased one another at the edge of a herd, striped flanks zith- 
ering in the sunlight. 

These three — wildebeest, zebras, and Thompson’s gazelles — 
keep regular company on East Africa’s broad plains. The zebras 
mow down the coarse upper stalks of the grasses, their digestive 
systems being designed to process forage in bulk. Then the wil- 
debeest select the more palatable lower grass blades that have 
been exposed, their four-chambered ruminant stomachs en- 
abling them to extract greater nourishment from less fodder. Fi- 
nally, the small Thompson’s gazelles snip new grass shoots as 
they reappear in closely cropped areas. When the grasses cease 
sprouting, the “tommies” can browse low shrubs and dig for 
roots, being the only one of the three adapted for feeding on a 
mixture of plant parts. 

Bands of somewhat larger Grant’s gazelles grazed with the 
three companion species, keeping slightly toward the periphery. 



50 The Fate of the Elephant 


Behind them, giraffes rocked slowly along with the grace of 
schooners, their heads swiveling in the sky, and ostriches raced 
across the driest part of the pan past a group of oryx with horns 
like a phalanx of Masai spears. 

I continued on toward a large marsh named Ol Tukai and 
watched a pair of crowned cranes float overhead. Kilimanjaro 
floated behind them. I imagined the angel-winged birds that 
dwell up there — the Mackinder’s owls, Verraux’s eagles, lam- 
mergeier vultures — soaring through cloudbanks and blizzards, 
past crags and curtains of sunlight. ... All at once 1 was among 
elephants. A herd of them was making its way toward the 
marshes with me. 

Towering like landforms, like moving biomes, they raised a 
light cloud of white alkali dust even in this green time. It made 
the air shine beneath their bellies. A haze of swallows wove 
through the air above, catching insects flushed from the trem- 
bling ground. Stalking beside the elephants’ pillar legs and rid- 
ing perched on their backs were egrets white as Kilimartjaro’s 
crown. The giants’ heads alone were the size of the zebra and 
wildebeest that had seemed so grand and strong to me a few mo- 
ments earlier. Thick mud and dirt caked the elephants’ baggy, 
wrinkle-patterned skin. When a gust of wind struck the herd 
from behind, the huge ears snapped taut like sails, and puffs of 
dust cracked loose to join the surrounding haze. And I kept 
thin kin g: Look what has come from the African soil. Look what 
our earth can do. 

That night, I slept — off and on — in one of the inexpensive 
bandas, or huts, set at the marsh’s edge. Gecko lizards rustled in 
the roof thatch while the crickets and big spiders they hunted 
dropped onto my mosquito net and elephants trumpeted just 
outside. In the predawn there were still elephants just outside. 
Their hulking shapes seemed no more than a thickening in the 
greyness around them until Kilimanjaro began to glow and the 
world grew solid again and I could make out a large herd of 
black Cape buffalo grazing on either side of the giants. This 
freshest part of the day would be the most active time for many 
creatures, before the air heated up. I grabbed a water bottle and 



East Africa: Ambosbli 51 

drove out to see what I could see along some little road trails that 
wound through a woodland of wild date palms and yellow* 
barked acacias called fever trees. 

Fever trees got their name because they were once thought to 
somehow harbor malaria. That was close; the type of moist, pe- 
riodically flooded ground where Acacia xanthophloea flourish 
makes good breeding areas for Anopheles mosquitoes, the vec- 
tors of malaria. Rounding a corner, I found a young bull ele- 
phant feeding on the long-thorned acacias. He would break off 
a branch and use his trunk to pull it slowly sideways through his 
mouth, bending down the arriving thorns with his Ups and then 
milling them between his molars along with the nutritious 
sprigs of little acacia leaves. All this was closely observed by 
both myself and a fiscal shrike perched just above the elephant. 
The shrike impales prey such as large insects and small lizards on 
acacia thorns, the better to hold them while it dines, since its tal- 
ons are too weak to be of much help in grasping and dismem- 
bering prey. 

The elepha’nt moved into a thicket of date palms to munch on 
the fronds. I followed. A litter of baby wart hogs flushed from 
the grass. Vervet monkeys and a half-dozen turkey-size ground 
hornbills picked insects from elephant droppings nearby. In the 
shadows beneath the palm>, impalas turned to watch me pass, 
then resumed their skittish feeding; I had noticed fresh leopard 
pug marks in the road dust not far back. A branch cracked, and 
I looked behind me. The young bull and the rest of his family 
were emerging from the palms, and my car was surrounded by 
giants. Had I reached out the window, I could almost have 
touched the closest one. 

The day warmed quickly as I rambled along with the family. 
Before long, they had taught me that it was alright for them to 
approach in my direction but not for me to steer the car too 
abruptly or directly toward them. They considered such a move 
enough of a threat that one of the females, usually a younger 
one, would threaten back, giving me an ear-flapping shake of 
her head as she suddenly turned in my direction. The group’s 
leader, the largest female, generally ignored me but kept a dose 



52 The Fate op the Elephant 

watch on her baby whenever it strayed from her side. I was taken 
by how much contact there was between the family members, 
how often they reached out to brush one another with their 
trunks, how they fed shoulder to shoulder when all the wood- 
land was their undisputed domain. 

In what seemed a very short while, it was straight up noon 
and the family had wandered beneath the shade of several large 
acacias. They moved indolently, essentially resting. From time 
to time, one would shower itself with dust. "Another might twist 
a bunch of grass stalks together with its trunk, pull them taut, 
then mow them off at the base by scuffing the ground with one 
nail-edged foot. If too many roots pulled loose with the stalks, 
the animal would whack them against the ground or its ankle to 
shake loose the clinging soil before finally reaching its trunk up 
to stuff the grass in its mouth. It reminded me of Ruby, the ele- 
phantine painter at the Phoenix Zoo, using her drinking pool to 
wash the dirt off bunches of carrots that her keepers gave her. 

Baboons trooped by the elephants. A chase betweeft two 
young baboons attracted the attention of the baby elephant, and 
it made a quick-shuffle run at them, its trunk raised and ears 
spread full. As soon as the baboons scattered up trees, the baby 
slowed and changed its gait to a sort of prancing shimmy. Quite 
pleased with itself — that’s the phrase I want to add here. How- 
ever, to avoid anthropomorphism, I am not supposed to use it, 
because I do not know that this baby was quite pleased with itself. 

I could instead say something like: the juvenile’s heightened level 
of aggression spilled over to activate nonspecific play activity 
patterns. They included picking up a stick and racing back and 

*\i%bt\y ol&ex members of its family, wag- 
gling its head. Then several baboons edged back down the tree 
they were in and started shrieking what 1 would call abuse if I 
were being anthropomorphic but will call high-pitched, grating 
hoots. And the baby charged again. The baboons scampered up 
the tree again, more casually this time, then returned more 
high-pitched, grating hoots upon the baby while 
‘ side against another tree. Even- 
and settled for throwing 



East Africa: Ambosbli 53 

its trunk in the baboons’ direction now and then, along with a 
short, high trumpet blast, just enough to force a reaction. The 
baboons' reaction was sometimes to fling an arm back in the el- 
ephant’s direction along with more hoots. Anthropotransladon: 

“Yo, Hose-nose.” 

“Hey, just because you drink water with your face, Mon- 
keypunk.” 

“Oh, yeah? 1 oughta come over there and . . .” 

“And what? Maybe I’ll come over there and . . .” 

Droppings and a few bones of various kinds lay scattered 
across the ground, and an elephant skull lay like a white boulder 
at the base of a palm a ways off. The air smelled of dust and 
dung, urine, sweet musks, rotting carcasses, tom and fragrant 
leaves — the way I remembered that wild places in Africa smell 
when they are full of life. In the afternoon, I trailed the family 
members as they moved toward the swamps of Ol Tukai. Once 
among the tall grasses and reeds, they joined more than two 
hundred other elephants, feeding, drinking, bathing, playing, 
and sorting out social relationships in this plush oasis before 
heading back toward the woodlands for the night. 

As before, a few elephants remained through the evening by 
the swamps in what was more or less the front yard of my hut. 
By dark, the afternoon clouds over Kilimanjaro had blossomed 
into thunderheads with lightning running through them, while 
the rest of the sky produced an infinite eruption of stars. I sat 
with my back against a pole on the porch, looking from the 
strange array of flying insects that collected around my candle- 
light to the flashes of lightning that would reveal, frozen in a sin- 
gle frame, silhouettes of the great mountain above and the great 
beasts just beyond my small door. 

Each day, I watched different families of giants. And each 
night, dry lightning spewed over Kilimanjaro and more ele- 
phants, until the old, good feeling of being in the regular com- 
pany of beasts came back. With so many species imperiled and 
the prospects of saving them so grim, I sometimes felt that what 
I did for a living was worry and explain problems. I tended to 
forget that there had been a time when everything I learned 



54 Thb Fate of the Elephant 

about the natural world enthralled me and I had chosen my ca- 
reer because I thought that learning more about natural history 
would only make me happier. But now I was remembering. I 
shook my head and smacked my hands together and did a little 
shuffle on the porch. I had definitely come to the right place. I 
started chanting my smug journalist mantra — always a good 
sign when 1 am on assignment. It goes: 1 can’t believe I’m getting 
paid to be here; I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this. An el- 
ephant observing me might have thought: The human appears 
to be, well, to put it proboscideomorphically, feeling quite 
pleased with himself. 

Perhaps the most important feeling I had was simply one of 
growing to like these wild elephants tremendously. It was hard 
not to. They were overwhelmingly sociable, expressive, and 
emotional — qualities that humans readily relate to. Because of 
their great, pulverizing size, each care-giving gesture seemed all 
the more tender; each deliberate manipulation of some little ob- 
ject all the more delicate. They reacted to surprisingly small 
things — pausing to let a mongoose scurry by, cautiously circling 
a paper wrapper left by a tourist. I had a very strong sense of a 
mind behind each elephant’s actions — a sense of information 
being processed in interesting and highly individual ways in the 
pause between stimulus and response. 

Although I’ve been joking about anthropomorphism, my real 
opinion — as a former wildlife biologist — is that we make mis- 
takes using it to interpret an animal’s behavior. But we can also 
make mistakes going out of our way td avoid it when dealing 
with creatures that clearly have a great deal in common with us. 
We need every tool we can muster for understanding other 
beings while we still have time to do so. 

Once I lay down beneath my mosquito net to sleep that night, 
the questions suspended by the magic of the lightning show lay 
down beside me: Could it all be razed by poachers tomorrow, 
this generous, embracing elephant domain? Lives like these? 
Was it really possible that elephants themselves could be all but 
gone from the earth within another couple of decades? How 
could things have come to this? No wonder Cynthia Moss had 
been slowly going half-crazy with worry. 



East Africa: Amboseli 55 


ISISISISISISISISISISISISIS' 

My next order of business was to pester Joyce Poole, who was 
trying to carry out vital field work each day at Amboseli while 
also writing up technical papers and assembling census data 
from surveys she had recently made elsewhere and being polite 
and helpful to the passing parade of journalists doing stories, 
news reports, and documentary films about the elephant crisis. 
Everyone picked on the Cynthia Moss-Joyce Poole project — 
not only because it was the longest-running and most detailed 
investigation into the nature of elephant society, but because 
there were not many others from which to choose. Given the 
popularity of elephants and the dimensions of the crisis affecting 
them, I was surprised at how few researchers were actually 
working full time to gather information about these animals’ be- 
havior in the field. 

I drove out among the elephants with Joyce and her colleagues 
Soila Sayialel and Norah Njiraini, “two of the top six people in 
the world as far as understanding what elephants are doing,” in 
Joyce’s estimation. Soila was in her twenties and was one of 
eleven children from a traditional Masai cattle-herding family 
based in the nearby village of Loitokitok. Norah, one of eight 
children, was also in her t wenties and from Loitokitok. But she 
was Kikuyu. Like many Kikuyu families, hers had left their tra- 
ditional home in the increasingly overcrowded highlands of cen- 
tral Kenya. They had settled here because the Masai were 
beginning to realize the potential profit that lay in selling off 
some of their traditional grazing pastures to land-hungry farm- 
ers. Over most of the Masai’s vast holdings, water was a limit- 
ing factor, but there was enough of it around the base of 
Kilimanjaro to sustain crops. Norah’s brother had married So- 
fia’s sister. So, of the top six observers of elephant behavior in 
the world, one third were sisters-in-law and, counting Joyce, 
one-half were bouncing along in the car with me. 

As time allowed over the next several days, the three women 
introduced me to elephant society properly. Most of my time 
was spent with Norah and Sofia, who pointed out the various 
families, their members, and the animals’ histories. Like Joyce, 



$6 The Fate op the Elephant 

both of them could identify all 715 or so elephants using Am* 
boseli at the time, and the women seldom needed more than a 
few moments to recognize any one of them. 

Here, then, was Karen, age forty to forty-five, leader of the 
KA family. And her sister Kiera, twenty-four. And Kerry, the 
mother in the KA group with a calf less than three weeks old. 
Typically for a baby that age, the calf was still learning exactly 
how the miracle organ in the center of its face operated. It had 
trouble making the trunk go where it was intended to go and 
sometimes just stood around twirling the thing or swinging it in 
a figure eight. And sometimes the baby tripped over it, espe- 
cially when climbing or getting up from a rest. An older baby in 
the group, like the one I had seen earlier, was given to chasing 
whatever it could get a reaction from: monkeys, birds, even wil- 
debeest and zebras. Other members of the family came over, in- 
trigued by the baby’s efforts: first Katrinka, then Kristie. . . . 

If any doubt arose as to an elephant’s identity, Norah and Soila 
could flip through a card file containing sketches, photos, and a 
list of each animal’s usual companions. The key identification 
marks had to d,o with the ears, which usually bore a unique pat- 
tern of holes and tatters along the outer edge. The general length 
and shape of the tusks offered further clues. On a finer scale, each 
elephant generally favored one tusk or the other for such activ- 
ities as digging and prying away bark, and this resulted in one 
tusk being noticeably more worn at the tip. Moreover, each el- 
ephant had a favored side for drawing branches and roots into its 
mouth, and this often wore a distinct groove across the upper 
surface of that tusk. Scars and various abnormalities, from limps 
to crossed tusks, made certain individuals and their family 
groups easy for even a newcomer such as me to pick out. 

So that would be Wart Ear over there, age forty to fifty, leader 
of the AA family. Near her in this group were Allison and Aga- 
tha, each with babies less than a year old that were mounting 
each other and wrestling. One kept trying to trip the other by 
grabbing a hind leg with its trunk. 

Looking on, Norah commented, “1 never tire of studying el- 
ephants. 1 forget they are animals. It is just like studying people. 



East Africa: Amboseli 57 

When one dies, it is terrible for me. If this study ended, I would 
go on and work with other animals.” 

Like us, elephants reach puberty at age thirteen or fourteen, 
occasionally younger. They continue to breed until around age 
fifty and, again like us, may live seventy years or more. A cow 
produces a single calf or, rarely, twins. The interval between 
births is two-and-a-half to four years, due primarily to the long 
gestation period. Even so, a female may ultimately have ten to 
twelve births over her long reproductive lifetime. Many of her 
offspring will also have several births while she is still fertile. 

As a rule, an elephant family is led by an older female, or ma- 
triarch, and consists of her female offspring and their young. It 
may take in one of the matriarch’s sisters and her descendants as 
well. Accordingly, a basic family unit for elephants throughout 
much of the African bush contains at least six to twelve animals, 
and families of twelve to twenty are quite common. Sooner or 
later, part of the group is likely to split off and form a new fam- 
ily. How much sooner or later seems to depend upon how well 
the particular individuals within the family happen to be getting 
along and how much food is available. When a matriarch dies, 
one of the elder offspring often takes her place in a smooth tran- 
sition, but the family may split on this occasion as well. Males 
gradually grow more independent as they approach puberty, 
spending more and more time on the periphery of the group. 
Eventually, they leave the family to attach themselves to bands 
of other males. Such bull bands vary in size from two or three to 
more temporary groupings of as many as twenty or even thirty, 
with the average falling well toward the lower end of this scale. 

The female groups are the enduring social units. Even when 
they split up, they frequently remain in close association, trav- 
eling together throughout the range. Related families form what 
Cynthia and Joyce term bond groups. Related bond groups 
sometimes associate in turn to form still larger units the re- 
searchers call dans. As with families, the size and stability of 
these groupings varies somewhat with the food supply, abun- 
dant forage naturally making it easier for elephant kin to remain 
near one another. During times of severe drought, even rela- 



$8 The Fate of the Elephant 

dvdy small, tightly knit families may split up, at least until bet- 
ter times return. These days, group size also reflects the fact that 
a number of surviving populations are unnaturally crowded 
within relatively small sanctuaries — a situation true of Amboseli 
to some extent. Elephants also tend to congregate in larger than 
normal groups as a response to harassment and shooting. 

The KA and AA families were a good example of a bond 
group; they often traveled side by side, Norab and Soila told me. 
The two groups had been close together when we first arrived, 
then fed in different directions until they were roughly two hun- 
dred yards apart. Now they turned back and began running to 
reunite. You might have thought they had been lost to each other 
for years. The meeting was a detonation of trumpets, screams, 
and rumbles, thundering feet, flapping ears, and extended wav- 
ing trunks that met and enwrapped and moved on to caress 
heads and mouths. The animals’ temporal glands — modified 
sweat glands that form a bulge on each side of the head several 
inches behind the eye — had clear liquid flowing from them, a 
common sign of excitement or stress among females. 

As we approached many families for the first time on a par- 
ticular day, they responded by approaching us in turn and com- 
mencing a toned-down version of the same expressive greeting 
celebration. They plainly recognized the research vehicles, and 
it seemed to me that they recognized the women within them, 
at least by their scent. Joyce was particularly given to calling out 
each animal’s name, alternately talking to it in a crooning voice 
and cupping her hands around her mouth to make a slow mo- 
torboat sound with her lips — her approximation of an elephant 
greeting rumble. Soon, we would be encircled by giants scuffing 
the dust, lifting their trunks toward our car, and rumbling out 
messages of their own. 


One afternoon, Norah, Soila, Joyce, and I came alongside a 
bond group consisting of three related families. They were on 
their way back from the swamps, moving along through a dry 



East Africa: Ambosbli $9 

plain and snatching mouthfuls of salt-tolerant Sporobolus grass. 
By evening they would reach the woodlands near the reserve’s 
border, and there they would spend the night. 

“That’s Jezebel,” Soila said, pointing to a large female with 
two large lumps from an old wound or infection on the right 
side of her abdomen. She was standing quietly amid several 
other females. “She is the matriarch of the JA family. When all 
three families are together, Jezebel usually leads the entire bond 
group. She is about sixty years old.” 

After reaching adulthood, females seem to elongate as they 
grow older, and they end up with a sort of stretched out, sagging 
body. The skin over the massive skull takes on a sunken look as 
well, notably around the temple and jaw. Jezebel had that ap- 
pearance, as if gravity were finally beginning to get the upper 
hand in her lifelong endeavor to keep so much heaviness active 
so high above the ground. As her kin spread out around the car, 
Jezebel stayed in place, resting her trunk across one of her long 
tusks. Now and then, a tired-looking elephant will hold its trunk 
in its mouth. I even saw one tusker lift a log, rest it on its tusks, 
then rest its trunk upon the log. 

With Jezebel was her son, seven years old. He looked as 
though he was still trying to suckle. Could that be? Yes, said 
Joyce. A female with no new progeny may allow a juvenile to 
continue nursing for several years, and this young male may 
well have been the last offspring Jezebel was able to conceive. 
Nearby was a two-year-old just beginning to show its tusks and 
a weeks-old baby scratching its rump by rubbing up against its 
mother’s leg. 

Joyce Poole was busy rumbling greetings to another grown 
female. “That elephant’s name is Joyce,” Soila said. “She is the 
number-two-ranking female in the JA family, after Jezebel.” , 

“Joyce has a ten-year-old son named Joshua — that one there,” 
Norah added, indicating an alert-looking bull nearly the size of 
the smaller elephant mothers. 

Joyce Poole just said, “Watch this,” and she threw a chip of 
dried buffalo dung halfway to Joshua. He walked toward our 
car, picked up the dting, and very accurately chucked it straight 



6 o Th.b Fate op the Elephant 

4 

back to Joyce. Joyce laughed and turned away to explain some- 
thing about this family’s history. In short order, she was bonked 
on the head with a tossed wildebeest bone; ten-year-old male el- 
ephants don't drop a game that easily. Joyce then took off one of 
her rubber sandals and threw it to Joshua. He stared at it a mo- 
ment, walked up, put it in his mouth, looked at Joyce, and 
chewed on the sandal a little. Then he threw it over his shoulder 
away from her, kinking his tail and shaking bis head with a hint 
of challenge. As that failed to draw a reaction from Joyce, he 
walked back, picked up the sandal, and threw it part way to 
Joyce, still head-waggling a bit. Then he walked up and tossed 
it the rest of the way. Joyce tossed it back. And so it went, two 
species playing catch on the shimmering plains beneath the 
snows of Kilimanjaro. 

Eventually, Joshua grabbed the sandal and threw it over his 
shoulder again. Then a younger male named Jocelyn took over, 
tossing the sandal into the air and kicking at it with a foot when 
it fell. Joshua, now more intrigued with us than with the play- 
thing, edged closer and closer to the car while Jocelyn rubbed the 
sandal across his chest and behind his ear, then tossed it into the 
air once more. 

I couldn’t say what Joshua’s intentions were. My impression 
is that males of that age, on the verge of becoming independent, 
have a general tendency to push encounters a bit to see what will 
come of them. They do this with one another, frequently shov- 
ing and sparring their way across the savanna while the females 
feed, and they do it with other species, carrying on the tendency 
of juvenile elephants to try to bluff various animals out of their 
path. I noticed that as they become older and larger, the males 
move on from baboons and antelope to bigger animals: buffalo, 
for instance, which do not yield their ground readily. And rhino, 
where there are some still around. 

Two days later, Joyce and I encountered the JA family again. 
The females seemed as comfortable around Joyce as ever. But 
without any sandal-tossing or other prompting on our part, 
Joshua jogged up to test us again, slinging dust and mud when- 
ever Joyce moved the car, seeing if he couldn't force us to back 



East Africa: Amboseli 6i 


off. His actions still had elements of a game, but it was a more 
aggressive one this time — more like a taunt, an invitation to 
spar. Joyce dismissed him as being in “a pissy mood.” So it 
seemed. Joshua even tried to kick one of the ubiquitous egrets 
feeding around the JA family. The kick was fairly high and un- 
expectedly quick, with the rear leg shooting out to the side and 
slightly backward. After watching this kung-fu move several 
more times in wild African elephants, I kept it in mind, and that 
saved me from a couple of serious knocks later on among work- 
ing Asian elephants. 

There are a few elephants that Joyce can do more with than 
play catch. There are those she can touch and be touched by in 
the wild. The Douglas-Hamiltons had some elephant compan- 
ions of that sort in Manyara. Yet a couple of Joyce’s are unusual 
in that they are huge, fully grown males. I met one in a seldom- 
visited comer of the reserve as he walked over to reach in the car 
window and greet Joyce. Like all experienced animal people, 
Joyce moved with slow, confident motions whenever she was 
close to elephants, and her crooning voice sent out a consistent 
signal of reassurance as this bull greeted her w#h a trunk-tip 
touch, then quietly turned and went on his way. 

Joyce discouraged me from asking many questions about the 
extent of her direct contact with the animals. She worried that 
if she made much of it, visitors might try the same thing and get 
whacked. There might also be criticism from colleagues about 
influencing the natural behavior of the animals she was study- 
ing. I understood her concern but found it ironic. Tiny Ambo- 
seli was hardly a natural situation in many respects. Barely 150 
square miles in size, it was more like a large, open-air zoo where 
tourist vans were a major part of the environment. Officially, 
the drivers were supposed to avoid interfering with the animals’ 
activities and stay on the roads in order to keep from tearing up 
the grasslands. In practice, urged on by passengers brandishing 
cameras, binoculars, and money for tips, the drivers would 
barge in as close as possible to animals along the main routes and 
go bounding cross-country whenever anyone spotted some- 
thing extraordinary. At times, half a dozen vans would end up 



62 Thb Fate of thb Elephant 


converging on lions and rhinos like scavengers on a carcass. Ara- 
boseli had only about half a dozen rhinos left. Lions were also 
scarce, several prides having been poisoned by Masai herders. 
Because of political pressure from cattle grazers, the reserve it- 
self was shooting another key predator — the African wild dog — 
on sight. And the elephants were exceptionally concentrated, in 
part because they had learned that they were safe from shooting 
here. 

Which brings up the question of where iri‘all the savannas of 
Africa one might find a “natural” elephant population. A few 
herds remained fully protected in parks such as Amboseli, only 
to be affected by the constant presence of visitors to the point 
where they were both unnaturally disturbed by people and un- 
naturally tolerant of human presence. Nearly every other herd 
had experienced high enough levels of poaching to make the an- 
imals unusually intolerant of human presence. Joyce had just re- 
turned from trying to census herds in a heavily shot-up region, 
and she told me that they began racing away in panic wheif her 
vehicle was still half a mile off. I wondered how that felt to 
someone used to greeting elephants by name with an occasional 
touch as she made her rounds in Amboseli? 

Joyce Poole grew up in Kenya and decided at age eleven that 
she would one day study elephants. That decision came, she told 
me, when she went to hear chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall 
speak at the National Museum in Nairobi. In 1976, at the age of 
nineteen, Joyce made good on her promise to herself, and she has 
been living with elephants ever since. “I’ve had a tent as my only 
home until last year, when I got a house in Nairobi,” she men- 
tioned as we wound through thickets of palm and fever trees to 
her current campsite in the reserve. This camp consisted of sev- 
eral large canvas tents with awnings and a cook shack built of 
sticks and scrap lumber, all clustered within a small, grassy 
clearing. The grass, I noticed, had been mowed to make a small 
yard. I thought it might be to keep down ticks and make snakes 
easier to detect. I learned that it was partly to do that, but mainly 
to keep down elephants. 

Joyce pointed to grey shapes moving among the palms. 



East Africa: Amboseli 63 

Those, she said, were the Tuskless family, which also used this 
particular area as a sort of home base. In earlier years, they and 
other elephants often tromped through camp, sna gging guy 
lines and knocking down tents. They also raided the cook shack, 
which had to be rebuilt and resupplied any number of times. 
Now, the mowed grass served as a sort of perimeter — a human 
territory marker for the elephants to recognize. To cross it was 
to set humans in motion yelling and clanging on pots. The ele- 
phants quickly learned this and, by and large, accepted the ar- 
rangement. Just the same, a second line of defense in the form of 
an electric wire enclosed the cook shack to deter the occasional 
midnight snacker. On the other hand, elephants were also drawn 
by the strains of guitar music issuing from camp some evenings, 
and no one bothered to run them off then. “They seem to like 
the harmonics,” Joyce surmised. “They enjoy being sung to as 
well.” 

As the Tuskless family emerged from the foliage, 1 could see 
that the matriarch did indeed lack ivory and had passed this trait 
on to the younger females in her group. There was another fe- 
male near them, an intruder from a different clan. She was in 
heat and being pursued by a bull, which helped explain why she 
was temporarily separated from her own group. The presence of 
the courting pair in the Tusklesses’ usual haunts made the family 
restless, and as Joyce and I sat in the clearing to go over details 
of her work, there was a good deal of trumpeting, branch- 
breaking, and general elephant commotion on all sides. At 
times, 1 could scarcely make out her words. When Joyce had said 
that she was living among elephants all those years, she meant it 
literally. 

Later, the Tuskless family moved off, and another family ap- 
peared. A twenty-year-old female from this group was soon rac- 
ing around camp, trumpeting, head-shaking, ear-flapping, and 
snarfmg, which is Joyce's description for a peculiar nasal trum- 
pet. What had inspired all this? Joyce replied, “She’s just feeling 
playful. So much expenditure of energy in such a massive animal 
to no apparent purpose — 1 find it. wonderful. One of these out- 
bursts a week would be enough to keep me watching elephants. 



64 The Fats of the Elephant 


Any other animal . . . I’d have quit during the tough times, and 
there have been some real tough times.” 

lo the inevitable difficulties of carrying out field research and 
obtaining funding, add interminable delays due to bureaucratic 
bungling and red tape, squabbling and jealousies within the 
conservation and research community, management problems 
within the Amboseli Reserve, poaching of study animals, years 
of harsh drought, illnesses among researchers, 4 physical assault 
on Joyce by two men in the hills around Nairobi, and petty but 
persistent annoyances such as resentment of Norah and Soila by 
some tribespeople envious of the fact that these women drove 
cars. A car represented wealth and status, and driving one was a 
privilege seldom available even to leaders in the local male- 
dominated community. 

Beneath Joyce’s efficient and determined exterior lay a few 
hollows of quiet despair. Perhaps that was why she reveled in the 
elephants’ quality of being what she often called funny or silly. 
“Whether sad, angry, distressed, eager, or playful, elephants are 
this in a big way,” she told me as we drank tea by the cook shack. 
‘And it’s not only their size but the intensity. You’ve seen them 
greeting each other at 160 decibels fifteen feet away when 
they’ve been separated less than half an hour. Also, I love the 
family structure. If a baby so much as makes a tiny complaint 
that doesn’t deserve attention, the entire family rumbles and 
goes over to touch and caress it, to worry about what could be 
wrong. They have so many qualities that we do and such a def- 
inite sense of themselves. They are a large, funny animal, and 
they seem to know when they are being funny, the same way 
they act embarrassed when they have done something dumb. 
They convey a sense of knowing how they fit into the world.” 

“I’m with you, but I’m having trouble thinking of the partic- 
ulars. I haven’t watched elephants that much yet,” I said. 

“Have you ever watched one relate to a blacksmith plover de- 
fending its nest?” she asked. 

I had. All around the waterholes of Etosha Park in Namibia, 
I had seen giants back away when confronted by a shrieking bird 
with raised wings that did not quite reach up to an elephant’s an- 



East Afkica: Ambosbli 65 

klc. Sometimes the elephants pranced and waggled their heads as 
they retreated, as if laughing to themselves, the “laughter” per- 
haps serving to release tension, as it does for us. Sometimes they 
retreated with great solemnity and gave the bird a wide, digni- 
fied berth. Do the words laughter, solemnity, and dignity sound 
excessive? Then forget them. This much is indisputable: what I 
had observed between bird and elephant was a message plainly 
sent, plainly received, plainly respected. And I had been watch- 
ing the same behavior in Amboseli. Which, I now found myself 
thinking, was why I had been so surprised when the young bull 
Joshua had kicked at the egrets around his feet; it was totally out 
of character for a large elephant. And that said quite a lot about 
the character of large elephants, I suddenly realized. “Yes,” I an- 
swered. “Yes, I’ve seen that.” 

“So gently done,” Joyce mused. “So sensitive not to hurt the 
displaying bird. But happy to interact with it. Tom comes to 
mind as another example. Tom, the young male elephant, who 
was about to mess with a garbage can here at camp. He was wag- 
gling his head as if to say, Tm going to do something silly.’ He 
was so pleased with himself.” 

I laughed and told Joyce how many times that expression had 
come to mind while I was watching elephants. 

“Or I’ll be winding up a string used to mark out a vegetation 
study plot,” she continued. “Well, the elephants come. No in- 
difference or fear or shying. Instead, it’s ‘Omigod! There’s a 
string in the environment.’ So everyone has to trumpet and 
scream and nee around. Then they all have to talk about it. And 
then pretty soon one is winding the string up around its trunk. 
Then one whirls and winds it around all four legs. Then off they 
go into the bush, playing, hauling off all my string along with 
them. Nearly any other animal would have sniffed once at the 
string and gone on its way. 

“They start playing by trumpeting. I once had fifteen ele- 
phants going mad around the car. One tusk through a window. 
Feet on my fenders. They would step down on the fender, but 
ever so lightly — enough to bounce but not to crush anything. 
Another elephant had a tin can it was playing with stuck on the 



06 The Fate of the Elephant 


end of its trank and was trying to act wild and rolling its eyes — 
trying to make it into a big deal. That’s how they are. One animal 
can amuse itself for two hours beating up a bush or just goofing 
around with a stick.” 

I had read several of Joyce’s scientific publications and knew 
that she was perfectly capable of couching any description of el- 
ephant behavior in neutral scientific jargon to avoid the taint of 
anthropomorphism. She did not really write ^bout such quali- 
ties in the first place, confining her papers to specific aspects of 
elephant biology and social relationships. She knew that I was 
aware of this. We both understood that we were talking freely 
about impressions and ignoring the chore of qualifying every- 
thing to make it sound less subjective. At the same time, I be- 
lieve we both keenly felt that there ought to be a better way of 
speaking about such matters. 

Our subject was the things elephants do and feel — and, more, 
why they do them and how they feel about them. These are 
things that bridge the gap between what science accepts and 
what intuition suggests. Yet we have almost no equivalent lan- 
guage to bridge the gap between rigorous scientific terminology 
and the drama of thoughts and feelings that animates the human 
sphere. We have no words to hold and make real the in-between. 
And, lacking words, we lack ways of thinking coherently about 
animal consciousness, for things become real to us only after we 
have named them. 

Science shuns all but the most conservative interpretations of 
animal motives, states of awareness, sensitivities, and yearn- 
ings, thereby safeguarding its objectivity but doing the creatures 
a genuine disservice. Their capacities clearly exceed the effec- 
tiveness of our current scientific method to discover and define 
what exists. To my mind, that gap constitutes an exciting chal- 
lenge. Here is the epitome of a proper scientific frontier. But it 
is more confusing than others, since we define animals in rela- 
tion to ourselves and vice versa. Consequently, many scientists 
continue to shy away, warning about the dangers of anthropo- 
morphism when what they are really concerned about are the 
dangers of breaking through into new and uncertain ground. 
This amounts to the same old fear of upsetting established ways 



East Africa: Ambosbli 67 

of looking at the world that has always stymied the practitioners 
of science. 

They can see the edges of the box that holds the words person 
and human becoming blurred, dissolving, melting down from 
the top of the pyramid of life, where we have placed the box, to 
merge into the supporting layers below. They can see the realms 
of morality and philosophy hovering closer than they would 
like. What is harder for them to see is the extent to which mo- 
rality and philosophy have already shaped, and continue to 
shape, the perceptions of science. It is cultural prejudice, not 
logic, that makes it so difficult for us to comprehend the mean- 
ing of the things our fellow creatures do and feel. It is cultural 
prejudice, not logic, that limits our understanding of their true 
nature and, thus, of our own. For example, I am convinced that 
elephants experience delight, and I do not think it would take 
any observer of them long to reach the same conclusion. Sci- 
entists working with elephants know this quality in the animals 
but forbid themselves from speaking and writing about it in 
their formal work. I do not see how even their most detailed in- 
vestigations can yield a true understanding of the nature of these 
beasts as long as their results hew to a framework in which hu- 
mans are allowed to experience delight and sorrow while ele- 
phants are not. 

So much for my cant. Joyce had a somewhat different view. 
She expanded upon it after I commented that the Amboseli ele- 
phant research team — an all-female group consisting of Cynthia 
Moss, Joyce, Norah, and Soila — seemed a match for the ma- 
triarchal structure of elephant society. “Men,” she said, “have a 
hard time dealing with truly tough animal behavior problems, 
which involve intuiting creatures and working with emotions. I 
would suggest that men don’t do particularly well with other 
people either. Human males tend to be more interested in im- 
posing schemes, or, 1 could say, fitting things into a system. It’s 
part of the dominance games that intrigue them — games that 
extend to the whole biosphere. It’s so much easier to ‘take 
charge,’ even if you don’t know what you’re doing, than to 
speak of emotions in animals.” 

We talked for a while of the differences between the sexes: of 



68 The Fate of the Elephant 

die female tendency toward nurturing and empathy, as opposed 
to the male predisposition toward, not to say obsession with, 
taking control. Of the puffing of chests and the drive to make 
others submit, whether they be people or ideas. Of territoriality 
and testosterone. It wasn’t anything original. But I was in- 
trigued when Joyce mentioned that the attitudes of men often 
turned around once they visited the Amboseli project and got to 
know individual elephants. The guys gentled down, she said; 
they got less hard-nosed about scientific wildlife management 
and more in the spirit of being among the elephants and listen- 
ing to what the giants had to say. 

“Finally, I link elephants and freedom,” Joyce told me. “Free- 
dom of speech. No, freedom of expression. All their vocaliza- 
tions — and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of their 
language — all their body language communication. Greeting 
ceremonies among bond groups forty-five animals strong. 
When they’re so expressive, it makes me feel free. Liberated. Es- 
pecially when I’m working alone here.” Especially during those 
times when they become my closest companions, she seemed to 
be saying. I felt something similar. How else to explain why the 
sight of elephants together had begun to give trie such a burst of 
pleasure? Maybe the sense of liberation I experienced had more 
to do with a feeling that if lives as great as these could exist, then 
anything was possible. 

Implicit in Joyce’s talk of expressiveness was a degree of un- 
derstanding of elephant communication abilities shared by only 
a handful of other people in the world at the time. She and Cyn- 
thia had long been in the forefront of research along this line. 
They had already defined a variety of vocalizations and the be- 
haviors associated with them when, in 1984, Katharine Payne 
discovered the ability of elephants to communicate in subsonic 
frequencies. Over portions of the next two years, Payne and her 
Cornell University colleagues William Langbauer and Elizabeth 
Thomas visited the Amboseli project and worked with Cynthia 
and Joyce to explore the use of subsonic, or infrasound, com- 
munication in the wild. The Cornell team moved on to pursue 
further experiments in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, while 
Joyce carried out similar work at Amboseli, recording various 



East Africa: Amboseli 69 

rumbles on tape and then playing them back through loudspeak- 
ers and observing the reactions of elephants in 'the area. 

For many years, scientists had remarked on the strange ability 
of elephant groups some distance apart from one another to co- 
ordinate their activities. For instance, an observer perched on a 
hilltop might notice several families spread out across the plain 
below all turn more or less at once and begin walking in the 
same direction. No sound would have been heard; yet no wind 
could have carried scent from one group to the next quickly 
enough to account for such a simultaneous reaction either. “I 
was greatly relieved to learn about the discovery of infrasound,” 
Iain Douglas-Hamilton had remarked when I met him in Nai- 
robi. “You see, when we got together with other scientists, we’d 
end up comparing notes on this remarkably synchronous behav- 
ior in widely separated elephant groups, and not one of us could 
come up with a reasonable explanation. We didn’t mention ESP 
openly, but I can tell you that some of us were ready to entertain 
the idea that these animals were sending bloody mind waves to 
each other.” 

To date, Joyce has identified a minimum of thirty-four dis- 
tinct elephant vocalizations. Among them are an assortment of 
trumpeting sounds, from outright blasts to a type of groan that 
a male uses to indicate that he has had enough of a jousting ses- 
sion with another male. Elephants also issue various kinds of 
screams, including expressions of social excitement and a par- 
ticular pulsating bellow given by a female being chased by a 
suitor she wants nothing to do with. Babies scream as well, 
mainly when they want milk. “They scream louder and louder 
if they don’t get any,” Joyce informed me. “Actually, they al- 
ways get milk in the end. I have never seen a young baby denied 
by its mother. One sister got very upset when her younger 
brother was not getting milk, and she came over and rumbled at 
mom about it.” (Both elephants and humans regularly suckle 
their offspring for a relatively long time — two or even three 
years. Human milk is the second sweetest among mammals, 
judging by the concentration of lactose, or milk sugar. Only el- 
ephant milk is sweeter.) 

Rumbles comprise the majority of vocalizations, and they are 



To Thb Fate or the Elephant 


used for a wide range of occasions. When an elephant is sur- 
prised by something altogether new in its path, it gives off a 
trumpet. When it encounters something new yet somehow fa- 
miliar, the result is a snort-rumble instead. There are rumbles of 
reassurance, rumbles to say “Let’s go,” rumbles to maintain 
contact once going, and rumbles to cry “I’m lost’’; rumbles in- 
volved with dominance and with courtship and mating; and a 
humming rumble sent forth by mothers to newborn calves. 

About fifteen of the known rumbles have an infrasound com- 

* 

ponent. These low frequencies are what permit elephants to 
maintain contact over long distances. Higher-frequency waves 
— the ones we can hear — dissipate more quickly as they travel. 
In some cases, the infrasound may serve to alert elephants to stop 
what they are doing and listen carefully for faint sounds at higher 
frequencies that are carrying more detailed information. The el- 
ephants respond to certain rumbles by “freezing” — becoming 
motionless and alert. That was another anomaly that caused ob- 
servers to contemplate the possibility of ESP not so long ago — 
widely dispersed elephants all freezing at the same time. Tests 
with recordings show that rumbles carry well for at least two to 
three miles, and circumstantial evidence suggests that the range 
may be double that. 

“Playing back recordings of elephant calls is a very powerful 
tool,” Joyce told me. “It is our way of asking elephants ques- 
tions, of seeing how they view their social world.” She readily 
admits that translations of known elephant vocalizations are still 
rudimentary at best and that many more calls and variations on 
them may yet be uncovered. Imagine falling in with an un- 
known tribe of humans and trying to translate their language 
from scratch, understanding only the grossest of shouts, grunts, 
and coos. But at least the extended family structure of bond 
groups and clans makes more sense now that researchers can 
envision how the animals maintain contact while traveling 
throughout their range. 

Joyce has a hunch that certain rumbles serve to coordinate ac- 
tivities within a given group when its members are preparing to 
begin a dominance battle with another group, which is part of 



East Africa: Amboseli 71 


the process of dividing up available habitats and the resources 
contained within them into social territories. Joyce also sees 
clues that mothers have a reassembly rumble to draw together 
younger members of the family. Beyond that, she suspects that 
they may even have a different rumble to address each different 
member of their family. She also thinks that one purely subsonic 
rumble may reflect the fact that humans and elephants have 
evolved together in the same environments for many tens of 
thousands of years. She thinks, but cannot yet prove, that this 
rumble may mean, in effect, “Take care; people are near.” 


While Joyce had lately focused much of her attention on making 
an inventory of vocalizations, the chief subject of her research 
had always been the behavior of bulls. 

“Musth male,” Joyce proclaimed, nodding toward a fairly 
distant bull that was coming our way late one morning. “You 
can tell just by the way he walks. Look at how he carries his 
head.” He carried it high. There was the same suggestion of ten- 
sion and excitement in his gait. He was a titan — one of those 
that, when he entered a group of females and young, would 
seem to belong to a different race. He moved with such a direct, 
purposeful stride that I could not at the moment imagine any- 
thing short of a cement wall deterring him. As soon as he was 
within a hundred yards, I could smell him. He reeked of musty 
male scents, filling the savanna with his rankness. A dark stain 
ran from his temporal gland down to his mouth. His penis, thick 
as my thigh, was partially extended and dribbling urine. When 
he drew nearer still, 1 saw that this normally pinkish grey organ 
had taken on a strange, greenish color, which Joyce pointed out 
but could not explain. She guessed that it might have something, 
to do with bacteria flourishing in the dampness. 

The musth bull drew near a family and went from one female 
to another, probing between their legs with his trunk. The cow 
elephant’s vagina is unlike that of typical mammals. It runs ven- 
trally, along the underside of the abdomen, then curves upward 



11 Tbs Pats of the Elephant 


toward the center of the body cavity. The male’s penis, extended 
to its full three-and-a-half- to four-foot length, bends to match 
the course of the female’s uterus, taking on an S shape, with the 
last foot or two moving up and down and from side to side al- 
most independently. With his penis hard, crooked, and mobile 
at the end as the head and neck of a separate creature, the musth 
male reared on two legs, a sky-high colossus, and mounted a fe- 
male that was little more than a third his size. 

The Masai call the elephant ol tome or olenkaina, meaning he 
with the hand. They often snicker when they say this, for it may 
also be taken to mean he with the long, active penis. I had seen 
bulls courting and mounting females some distance away in ear- 
lier days, but I had never seen anything remotely like a sixty- 
plus-pound articulated penis in action up close. My whole 
impression of this beast shifted onto a mythic plane. He became 
one of the ancient earth gods, the generative phallic force incar- 
nate, fashioned from mud and mucus and overpowering crotch 
perfumes: Mighty Bull Elephant, lord of creation, bent upon 
sowing his seed across the land and filling it with his indomitable 
life force. For the moment, he was my totem. 

Musth is a word derived from Sanskrit. It means intoxicated. 
Indian mahouts have long used it to describe a state that mature 
elephant bulls enter once, occasionally twice, each year. This pe- 
riod may last two months or more in an Asian bull in prime con- 
dition, whereas one in poor condition may not come into this 
state at all. During musth, the male’s temporal gland produces a 
copious, dark, oily or waxy secretion. Yet for a week or two 
before this is visible, the onset of musth is evident in the bull’s 
behavior. He grows steadily more restless, irritable, and aggres- 
sive, in large part because his testosterone level is shooting up to 
several dozen times normal. 

This is when a lot of mahouts — and handlers at zoos, circuses, 
and so forth — get killed, and the killer is often an otherwise 
tractable bull with whom they have worked closely for years. It 
is a little like dealing with a bad human drunk: you can see with 
your own eyes that your old friend has turned half-crazy and bel- 
ligerent as hell, but you can’t quite bring yourself to believe that 
he is really going to lash out at you. Many mahouts tie such a 



East Africa: Amboseli 73 


bull to a stout tree or post at the first sign of musth and starve 
him, which brings this period to a close sooner. Some try to has- 
ten the end — and ease the bull’s fury — by feeding him tobacco, 
hashish, or opium balls. 

Musth is very similar to the rutting, or mating, period during 
which males of various hooved species fight and pursue females 
to the virtual exclusion of all other activities. Certain male Af- 
rican antelopes, for example, become too busy defending terri- 
tories and the females within them to snatch a bite of food for 
days on end. In the Northern Hemisphere, rutting bull moose, 
intoxicated with hormones, have been known to attack passing 
cars and even trains. Yet while musth might be called rutlike, it 
is not confined to any particular season as it is with most hooved 
animals. Nor does it coincide with a peak of female receptivity, 
for cow elephants do not come into heat, or oestrus, in any one 
season either. 

Female African elephants secrete fluid from the temporal 
gland during greeting ceremonies but do not show an increase 
in secretions during oestrus, and female Asian elephants appar- 
ently produce temporal secretions only rarely, if* at all. Even 
among males, the correlation between temporal gland secre- 
tions, aggression, and testosterone levels is not always direct, 
and there may be key differences between the Asian and African 
species in this respect as well. Perhaps secretions from the tem- 
poral gland play as yet undiscovered roles in scent communi- 
cation. 

Although musth has been known and its outward signs de- 
scribed in detail for millennia in the East, its actual function in 
wild Asian elephant populations remains unclear, largely for 
want of good data from the field. And until Joyce Poole joined 
Cynthia Moss and began to specialize in studying male behavior 
at Amboseli, it was widely held that African elephants did not 
experience musth at all. They do, and this condition doubtless 
goes a long way toward explaining generations of tales about 
confrontations with enraged “rogue” elephants. But it still 
doesn’t clear up the mystery of exactly what musth is or what 
purpose it serves. 

As Cynthia and Joyce have pieced the puzzle together so far. 



74 The Fate of the Elephant 

the breeding behavior of African elephants works as follows. 
Cow elephants periodically come into heat and attract suitors 
from the surrounding area. These may include males that are not 
in musth. They, too, are quite capable of impregnating females. 
However, under natural conditions, enough males will come 
courting that one or more of them are likely to be in a state of 
musth. Musth males are more actively roaming between family 
groups in the first place, testing the females for signs of oestrus. 
A male does this by sniffing a female's urine, which contains 
pheromones — chemical compounds that act as sexual attrac- 
tants — when the female is in heat. Actually, the male does more 
than sniff; he samples the urine with his trunk tip and places that 
sample in a pit on the roof of his mouth that contains the vo- 
meronasal organ, a highly developed chemical detector. Exactly 
what makes up the pheromone is an open question — one that 
has kept biochemist Lois Rasmussen busy for years in her labo- 
ratory at the Oregon Graduate Center for Study and Research, 
located in Beaverton. So far, the main thing she knows, she {old 
me, is that this chemical compound appears to be unlike any 
other yet foUnd in the animal kingdom. 

Elephant cows in heat are chposy about which males they 
mate with. They prefer large, dominant males to lesser ones, and 
males in musth to those not in musth, and they will go to great 
lengths to keep away from suitors that do not appeal to them. 
Meanwhile, the various males drawn to an oestrous female will 
compete for the right to attend her. Most such contests involve 
little more than threats and are settled after a brief chase or two. 
But pitched battles do occur, and it goes almost without saying 
that a head-to-head clash between tusk-bearing heavyweights of 
this order can result in serious injuries. 

Musth males have an advantage in mating rivalries due to 
their increased level of aggression. This is one time when a 
smaller male may supplant a larger one, for if the smaller one is 
caught up in the intensity of musth, he is not easily intimidated. 
Nevertheless, nature has found a way to ensure that the victor is 
still likely to be a fairly large and dominant male whose survival 
abilities — whose genetic fitness, in other words — have been 



East Africa: Ambosbli 7$ 


tested over a number of years. Although bulls may be capable of 
breeding in their early teens, they do not begin regularly coming 
into musth until they are at least twenty-five years old and usu- 
ally closer to thirty. Moreover, the length of musth for those 
young males is only a week or less, considerably shorter than in 
older bulls. Only between the ages of thirty-five and forty or so 
do males begin regularly coming into full-length musth. So 
when this factor is combined with competition among rival 
males plus the female’s say in the matter of who she will be 
mounted by, the likelihood is that she will end up being fertilized 
by the largest musth male in the vicinity. Overall, musth males 
probably impregnate 90 percent of the females in Amboseli. The 
three top-ranking bulls, all older than forty, are thought to be re- 
sponsible for 1 5 to 20 percent of the breeding. 

It is to the female’s advantage to attract as many rival suitors 
as possible in order to increase the probability that a top-ranking 
bull will emerge from the testing ground of competition to 
breed with her. Joyce was not surprised to discover that an oes- 
trous female sends out not only pheromones to announce her 
condition but a long-distance infrasound call. Nor was she sur- 
prised that males are especially attuned to respond to it, moving 
almost immediately in the direction of the sender. What Joyce 
had not expected was a reaction to the oestrous call among 
females. There are two kinds of reactions, really: unfamiliar 
groups tend to leave the vicinity, whereas familiar ones — the im- 
mediate and extended family — approach the sender, showing 
excitement. This hints strongly at a previously unguessed mech- 
anism for reinforcing social territories. 

After the female has been mounted and mated, she sends out 
a great call, and all her family members come racing over, agi- 
tated and trumpeting. Joyce termed this mating pandemonium. 
“Biologically, you could say that mating pandemonium serves 
to attract still more males to the oestrous female, increasing the 
chances that a still more dominant bull will come and drive off 
the one guarding her and end up being the one to actually fertil- 
ize her. I happen to think mating pandemonium is more than 
that, but whether it has to do with social territories, some type 



tW TUI Of tax Elephant 

of emotional support for the female in heat, or something else 
altogether, 1 couldn’t say.” 

Elephants do not maintain any sort of rigid boundaries to 
their social territories. Their system appears to be one in which 
various groups favor certain areas within seasonal ranges and 
maintain primacy there over intruding groups. Is a particular 
area selected by a group out of a tradition passed down from one 
generation to the next? Or does each group occupy the best hab- 
itat it can defend, with the highest-ranking groups claiming the 
choicest sections, subject to occasional challenges? The answer 
is: probably both. 

Compared to any number of other species, elephants appear 
to have evolved a smoothly functioning, harmonious society 
that incorporates a strong measure of altruism. Still, like all life 
forms, elephants ultimately compete with one another for re- 
sources and for success in producing offspring. Predictably, the 
Amboseli researchers found better reproduction among ele- 
phants occupying the center of the reserve than among those to- 
ward the periphery, where habitats offered less abundant food 
and less security from conflicts with humans. 

Since members of a bond group generally defend social ter- 
ritories together, it is greatly to the advantage of a low-ranking 
family to associate with a high-ranking one. Consider a mother 
and her offspring recently split off from a large family. Alone, 
this new family might find itself subordinate to most other 
groups in the area and prevented from using many portions of 
the range. But so long as the new family remains associated with 
the original group and joins it in defense of social territory, the 
family members continue to enjoy much the same access to re- 
sources that they had before. They continue to be represented by 
the highest-ranking female in the bond group — usually the ma- 
triarch of the original family or one of her elder offspring. 

Only two families m Amboseli were not part of a bond 
group, and only rarely did bond groups form between unrelated 
families. This being the case, joint defense of social territory is 
to the advantage of the higher-ranking family, as well as to the 
rest of the bond group. By helping to ensure the success of in- 



East Africa: Amfoseli 77 


dividuals related to them, members of the dominant family are 
working to increase the degree to which their own genes are rep- 
resented in the population as a whole. And that’s what the game 
is all about in the end. To some extent, the same general princi- 
ples could be used to help explain the organization of human so- 
ciety into extended families, clans, castes, tribes, and so forth. 

Of course, other species have found success through quite dif- 
ferent social arrangements, ranging from a largely solitary ex- 
istence to life in a crowded hive. Why should humans and 
elephants, who belong to two widely divergent mammalian 
families, have developed such similar social strategies? To begin 
with, both invest a great amount of time and energy in the care 
of young. In fact, humans and elephants are together at the ex- 
treme end of the scale in terms of the number of years during 
which offspring are carefully tended by their parents. Both have 
young that mature only in their early teens, and both continue 
to care for them until that time. This derives from another basic 
shared quality: we are both unusually long-lived as mammals 
go. Such lengthy nurturing also presupposes a good deal of 
intelligence. 

For societies to operate at the bond group and clan level, each 
individual must be able to maintain preferentially close bonds 
with a large number of other individuals over an extended pe- 
riod of time. To do this without squandering a lot of effort in 
rituals and displays designed to sort out friend from rival and 
good intentions from harmful ones, it helps to have a good 
memory for purposes of recognition, combined with good 
communication skills. And the key to fast, efficient communi- 
cation is the ability to use a fairly sophisticated language. All of 
these are characteristics both humans and elephants possess. 
They again relate to a more general shared quality, which is a 
high degree of intelligence. In terms of learning abilities, we and 
elephants are once more together at the extreme end of the scale. 

Most mammals’ brains at birth are about 90 percent of their 
adult weight. The majority of what the animals need to know to 
survive is already built in — hard-wired, largely instinctual. By 
contrast, in a human infant, the brain is only 23 percent of its 



w T«« Fate of the Elephant 

adult weight; for elephants, the figure is 35 percent. Like hu- 
mans, elephants are designed to learn most of what they need to 
know. The extended period of nurturing is part of that process, 
and they continue learning throughout their long lives. Their 
brain is highly convoluted — another measure of intelligence, 
which they share with humans, the great apes, and dolphins. 
And they have the largest brain of all land mammals. It weighs 
four times as much as ours. 

U9151S15151515151515151515 

During the second week of March, storms brought wind and 
rain to the Amboseli plains and fresh snow to the crown of Kil- 
imanjaro. The air was cool and moist. Small, fast-evaporating 
puddles patterned the game trails. Here and there among the 
grasses, the extra water spurred insect hatches, marked by con- 
gregations of hundreds of crowned cranes, glossy ibis, and sa- 
cred ibis, with a host of swallows scything the air just above 
them. The elephants continued their pattern of gathering each 
day in the central marshes, and each day I roamed among them, 
harvesting notes while they took grasses, sedges, and reeds. 

Joyce thought it possible that nearly all the elephants in the 
heart of Amboseli knew one another. Certainly, it looked as if 
each of the more than two hundred giants using the marsh 
where I spent most of my time had a firm sense of its place 
within the family and of its family’s status relative to every other 
group. The large herd went about its affairs with only occasional 
disputes, quickly settled when the elephants talked things over 
with a combination of subtle body language and vocalizations. 
In all, the animals got along so well that it was difficult for an 
inexperienced observer such as myself to sort out the existing 
social hierarchy at all. 

Late one afternoon, as maroon thunderheads blossomed from 
every horizon to meet toward the top of the sky, a stiff wind be- 
gan to sweep across the swamps. It felt ionized, as if the electri- 
cally charged air that heralds a rainstorm was condensed and 
streaming past in a current. Suddenly, all the zebras and wilde- 



East Africa: Amboseli 79 

beest in sight seemed prone to outbreaks of playing, fighting, 
and racing about. The baby wildebeest had been gamboling and 
leaping skyward all day, as young animals will. Now the adults 
that they scampered by would turn and take up chases of their 
own. The elephants appeared caught up in the general restless- 
ness. Virtually every subadult bull was locked in a vigorous 
trunk-wrestling contest with another. Subadult females went 
trotting past with upraised tails, frolicking like two-ton kittens. 
Three young elephants between two and four years of age si- 
multaneously raised branches in the air with their trunks and ran 
to and fro among their elders. A fourth animal, slighdy older 
than the others, broke off a branch and flourished it overhead 
while making a mock charge at my vehicle. 

A volley of trumpet blasts heralded a dominance contest 
grown out of a meeting between two families. The matriarchs, 
who were probably long familiar with one another, resolved 
matters in fairly short order. Each time the dominant female ap- 
proached, the subordinate one backed away until, finally, she 
lowered her head and turned aside to feed while moving off 
slowly. As is often the case, it was the younger males and females 
in each family that prolonged the contest. Their social status 
continues to change as they grow, and they are not so certain of 
where they stand relative to members of different families if they 
have not interacted with them for a while. 

Two mature females, each between fifteen and twenty years 
of age, met and faced off with outstretched ears. A horizontal 
crease appeared across each ear, causing the upper third or so to 
fold backward — a sign of serious aggressive intentions. One 
charged with a clarion trumpet call. The other broke and fled, 
but she wound up circling back at a trot to confront her pursuer. 
The two then trotted back and forth, sounding high-pitched 
trumpet blares. Several more charges led to the same female rac* 
ing away but then returning. Even after their families moved 
farther apart and all the other members resumed feeding, these 
two kept a wary eye on each other and slowly drifted back to 
within sparring distance. The next chase resulted in the pursuer 
closing in fast with her tusks aimed *at the other female's rump. 



80 The Fate of the Elephant 


The fleeing female bellowed loudly just before she was about to 
be struck. Elephants in such situations often give out such a call, 
a last-ditch effort to avoid harm, and it may cause the pursuer to 
pull up short or at least soften its blow. But not this pursuer. She 
delivered a solid poke before she slowed her pace. 

The other female slowed farther on, stood rocking slightly for 
a while, and then shook her head once and turned to feeding. 
Even then, though, she lagged behind her family and continued 
watching her rival, who was in turn still slightly apart from her 
own family, also watching. I missed the beginning of the final 
chase but turned to see the two already running full out. This 
time, the fleeing female stumbled in her rush and fell to her 
knees. Her pursuer, close behind, drove one tusk a good foot 
deep into her flank. I could not say how much of the force of that 
thrust was intentional and how much was the result of the pur- 
suer being unable to break her momentum. The injured female 
screamed, and the younger members of her family quickly ran 
to her side, followed by two older females, who inspected the 
wound with their trunks. When they turned to walk away, <$ne 
older female was on each side of the injured one, and I could see 
blood gushing down her flank. Joyce had told me of seeing a fe- 
male walking around with a broken-off tusk sticking out of her 
side. 


When not at the swamps, I patrolled the nearby woodlands, not- 
ing ground hombills, mongoose families, and troops of ba- 
boons and vervet monkeys picking through elephant dung for 
seeds and insects. The jackrabbit-size antelope called dik-dik fed 
on the leaves and buds of branches broken off at higher levels by 
elephants. Impala grazed young grasses growing where ele- 
phants had created clearings within the woodlands by pushing 
over acacias and palms, browsing shrubs, and generally tram- 
pling around acting like giants. 

Elephants browse trees and shrubs throughout the year. Be- 
cause the bark and leaves of woody plants contain the best stores 



East Africa: Amboseli 8i 


of nutrients during the dry months, elephants increasingly turn 
to them once the grasses cease growing and become brown and 
brittle after the rainy season. Elephants not only smash down 
tree limbs and shrubs in the process of foraging but can kill even 
the largest trees by stripping away enough bark to girdle the 
trunk. Their overall effect is to open up stands of forest. Where 
densely populated, the giants tend to transform woodlands into 
savannas. Elephants have been having this effect on the savanna- 
woodland balance for eons. Many ecologists believe that, to- 
gether with fire and drought, these giants helped mold the very 
look and feel of Africa. 

All would agree that elephants fit the definition of a keystone 
species, whose activities can affect the niches and population lev- 
els of a variety of less dominant life forms. Certain starfish are 
keystone species in the intertidal zone along sea coasts; as they 
plunder thick beds of mussels and barnacles, they shift the struc- 
ture of the community and open up opportunities for countless 
species of colonists. In similar fashion, elephants can increase 
habitat for an array of grazing animals while decreasing habitat 
for arboreal, or tree-dependent, species. Once the elephants 
move on, the grasses in the elephant-made openings are suc- 
ceeded by brush, temporarily favoring an assortment of brows- 
ing animals such as eland and kudu, until the forest reestablishes 
itself and the cycle is ready to begin anew. 

The corollary is that an absence of elephants or a serious re- 
duction in their numbers can lead to grasslands being replaced 
over wide areas by increasingly thick scrub while existing forests 
grow more dense and expand, all to the detriment of the grazing 
community and the benefit of browsers and arboreal animals. In 
desert areas, and during times of drought elsewhere, elephants 
keep shrinking water supplies available by deepening and en- 
larging springs and seeps, excavating with their tusks and 
trunks. Animals from ostriches and oryx to hyenas and foxes en- 
dure with the help of these elephant-maintained wells. Without 
them, the delicate balance can tip away from life toward the rule 
of sand and dust. 

just as northern latitude forests are adapted to periodic wild- 



82 The Fate of the Elefhant 


fire, Africa’s semiarid ecosystems may depend upon a certain 
amount of flux to maintain their vitality. No one has carried out 
detailed studies over a sufficiently long time to know the full ex- 
tent of the elephant’s role in this respect. It is not as simple as el- 
ephants being living bulldozers, for at the same time that the 
giants open up woodlands, they help trees disperse into new 
areas by spreading the seeds around in fertile heaps of dung. 
Scavengers from wart hogs to various antelopes and primates 
come in to glean nuts, pods, and fruit on the ground below trees 
that have been shaken and rattled by feeding elephants. Some of 
these animals, too, go on to spread the seeds around in their own 
dung. 

This much is certain: the richest wildlife communities in Af- 
rica are found neither in pure woodlands nor in pure savannas 
but in areas where the two general types of habitat meet and be- 
come interspersed with each other. Elephants are one of the 
most important agents influencing the dynamics of that mix- 
ture, and their activities generally increase the overall biological 
diversity of a region. Conserving elephants, then, becomes much 
more than an issue about how to protect a single great species. It 
is about protecting one of the forces that shapes ecosystems and 
helps sustain the wealth of wildlife found across much of the 
continent. It is about saving the creative power of nature. 


So far, I have all but ignored another major component of the 
Amboseli ecosystem: indigenous people. Until about four hun- 
dred years ago, this region was inhabited by the Ilogalala, or 
People of the Hard Teeth, a cattle-based pastoralist culture. They 
were replaced by other nomadic pastoralists, the Masai, a Nilotic 
group that spread along the Great Rift Valley in Kenya and Tan- 
zania. Renowned as warriors, they were successful herders of 
their own cattle and raiders of everyone else’s. They believed 
that the gods had given them all the world’s cattle, so they were 
perfectly within their rights taking them back. They proved 
powerful enough to resist slavers, British colonialists, and early 



East Africa: Ambosbli 83 

commercial ivory hunters alike until epidemics of smallpox 
spread from the colonialists, sharply reducing Masai numbers, 
while an outbreak of rinderpest — bovine typhus — decimated 
their cattle. Taking advantage of their weakness, British admin- 
istrators began moving groups of Masai off traditional grazing 
grounds. The Masai and their herds have since rebounded in 
numbers, but their distribution remains in good part an artifact 
of arbitrary colonial policies. 

The Masai of Amboseli follow much the same migratory pat- 
tern as the resident wildlife. During the long rains, they move 
out across the surrounding plains flush with new grass growth. 
Then, as waterholes dry up one by one, they withdraw toward 
the reserve, with its permanent springs and the lush vegetation 
of the swamps. The reserve itself is Masai territory set aside by 
a cooperative agreement between these people and the govern- 
ment. The Masai have the right to drive their livestock into the 
swamps to obtain water, but they are not supposed to let the an- 
imals graze extensively until they are back outside the bound- 
aries, lest they deplete the limited forage available for wildlife in 
the small reserve. In return, the Masai receive a percentage of 
park fees along with rent from the hotel concessions within the 
park. 

When the reserve staff, who are rangers from Kenya|s national 
park system, come down hard on the Masai for grazing too 
much along the allocated routes to water, the Masai sometimes 
respond by sticking a few elephants and an occasional rhino with 
spears. And every so often, members of the Masai’s young war- 
rior groups, known as moron , spear a few elephants and rhinos 
simply to prove their courage, just as they maintain the tradition 
of spearing a lion to validate their entry into full manhood. The 
elephants know where they stand with the Masai. They tend to 
give passing herders and their cattle a wide berth, often fleeing 
the vicinity altogether, whereas the same elephant families will 
stroll within arm’s length of tourist vans. Elephants everywhere 
seem to have a fairly precise sense of exactly how safe they are in 
a given set of surroundings, and it is not surprising given their 
learning abilities. (A natural-history tour guide told me of ele- 



84 The Fate of the Elephant 

phants in the Aberdares, a mountain range in the Kenyan high- 
lands, racing for cover during thunderstorms. They were much 
more panicky than typical elephants in such conditions, he said. 
But then some of these animals still carried shrapnel as well as 
memories from the days when British forces were bombing 
rebel Mau Mau strongholds in those hills.) 

All things considered, the elephants’ brushes with the Masai 
were a minor trouble. The Masai have always been pure pasto- 
ralists; they have no tradition of hunting wildlife for meat. Their 
migratory patterns are well integrated with those of native graz- 
ing animals. As a result, they view wild creatures as a normal, 
fully acceptable dimension of their environment. 

Heavy cattle grazing encourages encroachment by brush, be- 
cause cattle avoid the woody plants while selectively mowing 
down their competitors — the grasses and succulent herbs. Once 
a pasture has grown up into scrubland, the land simply cannot 
support as many grazing animals, wild or domestic. At the same 
time, tsetse flies, Glossina , flourish where brush is abundant, ^pd 
they carry the blood parasite Trypanosoma, which causes lethal 
infections in livestock and sleeping sickness among humans. So 
by browsing and trampling back brush, elephant herds can ben- 
efit pastoralists in more ways than one. 

The us-versus-them frame of mind concerning wildlife seems 
to develop most strongly in agrarian cultures. Once people have 
settled and planted crops, all kinds of native animals become 
pests, vermin, thieves, and enemies, no longer part and parcel of 
the perceived natural order of things. Especially elephants. They 
are adapted to seek out the highest-quality vegetation within 
their domain in any given season, and crops are exactly that: 
modified cereal grasses, starch-rich tuberous plants, and fruits. 
Incomparable elephant chow. These creatures are smart enough 
to remember where the best food supplies are and strong enough 
to plow through fences, barricades, and storehouses to get at the 
stuff. Conflict between elephants and most types of indigenous 
agriculture is almost inevitable. 

With that in mind, the Masai’s relative tolerance of elephants 
takes on special significance. Unfortunately, so does the recent 



East Africa: Amboseli 85 

trend of these people to become more sedentary, develop agri- 
cultural schemes to help feed their now burgeoning population, 
and sell parcels of former grazing territory to land-hungry farm- 
ers from ethnic groups indigenous to other parts of the country. 
During the wet season, virtually the entire Amboseli elephant 
population disperses beyond this little sanctuary’s boundaries. 
Even in the dry season, when the population has contracted to- 
ward the swamps at the heart of the reserve, nearly two-thirds 
of the families retire to woodlands outside the sanctuary to pass 
the night. By itself, the reserve could support only a small frac- 
tion of the current number of elephants year-round. The future 
of Amboseli s giants clearly hinges upon the attitudes and land 
use practices of the people surrounding the reserve. 

I discussed the problem with David Western, an ecologist 
who has investigated this area for more than two decades, and 
his Masai associate David Maitumo. We flew over Amboseli in 
Western’s light plane, counting elephants and buffalo. We tallied 
713 elephants in and around the swamps. Western pointed out 
that as many as 1000 more elephants inhabited the forested 
slopes of neighboring Mount Kilimanjaro, an area vastly larger 
than the reserve. The Kilimanjaro elephants appear to represent 
a different ecotype. On the rare occasions when a group of them 
visits the swamps, they can be distinguished easily by their com- 
paratively smaller heads and narrower, straighter tusks. I had 
also noticed that they seemed much warier. 

“Indeed,” Western agreed. “Enough rain falls at higher ele- 
vations on the mountainside to grow excellent crops along with 
coffee and tea. The elephants raid the shambas [small farms] up 
there, and I suspect that they are shot at rather often. As far as I 
know, very little interchange occurs between the Kilimanjaro 
and Amboseli herds. Now that herds in every other direction 
have been shot out, the Amboseli group is basically on its own. 
Do you realize that just two decades ago, elephant populations 
were continuous from here across to the east coast and south- 
ward into the Serengeti?” 

The Masai do not take kindly to trespassers on their territory 
and thus tend to discourage invasion by poachers. Before the 



86 Thb Fate of the Elephant 


1970s, though, they weren’t as quick to turn in the poachers they 
did encounter to government authorities as they are today. The 
change was symptomatic of an effort facilitated by David West- 
on to make sure that the Masai gained a direct financial boon 
from the protection of wildlife in Amboseli — namely, the 
revenue-sharing from park gate fees and hotel leases. At the 
time, this was a revolutionary concept in African wildlife con- 
servation. Up to that point, parks and preserves typically oper- 
ated on much the same principles as a colonial, estate. The idea 
was, in effect, to lock out the local people and make the resources 
available to white folks half a world away. 

”1 saw Amboseli as a chance to break away from the humans- 
as-the-enemy tradition. Two-thirds of the income of the Masai 
county council for this area now comes from Amboseli,” said 
Western, who heads the Nairobi office of Wildlife Conservation 
International, an outgrowth of the New York Zoological Soci- 
ety. “This is a vast improvement over earlier conservation plans, 
but I’m not sure that it will see us through current changes. P^t 
of the original agreement was to build a school and medical fa- 
cilities for the Masai at the reserve, to show the direct rewards of 
having the reserve in their midst. We got those going. Then bore 
holes were to be drilled to provide water for Masai outside the 
reserve, to compensate them for restrictions on using the central 
swamps.” 

“The bore holes went in, but they do not produce water any 
longer,” David Maitumo observed. He and Western proceeded 
to discuss this in Masai before turning back to include me. 

“The government reneged on its agreement to maintain these 
wells,” Western said. “The Masai are also supposed to receive 
grazing compensation for the amount of forage taken by wild- 
life. But, you see, it’s rather like the programs to compensate 
them for direct damage to crops and for depredation by preda- 
tors on livestock: the people wait and wait and are paid late or 
not at all. We also have the problem that most of the funds that 
go to the county council end up with the greater Masai govern- 
ment in Nairobi. They end up being distributed to other projects 
in other Masai homelands. The Masai here — the local people 
who have to put up with problems caused by the wildlife around 



East Africa: Amboseli 87 

them — get very little, and those who do are unclear that it comes 
from wildlife conservation.” 

It seemed another case of good intentions being unable to al- 
ter the physics of money, which tends to float to the top rather 
than filter down to the grass roots. Throughout my travels, I 
would discover that putting conservation revenues directly into 
the pockets of local people affected by wildlife was the best idea 
around — a straightforward, effective, democratic idea — and al- 
most impossible to put into practice. For that simple concept 
threatened the entire bureaucratic structure and all the ineffi- 
ciency — not to say graft — built into it. An enormous amount 
had already been invested in systems based upon power and 
prestige, designed to reward people at the upper levels at the ex- 
pense of the general populace. Every minor functionary and Big 
Man alike within that system would work to sabotage what he 
(occasionally she) saw as a potential loss of influence. 

This is a universal problem, and, universally, conservationists 
hesitate to scream too loudly for fear of losing such influence as 
they have with the governments involved and such hopes as they 
might entertain of encouraging more common-sense policies. In 
many developing countries, after all, conservation concern and 
conservation expertise are in large part the province of outsiders, 
who are vulnerable to charges of meddling in a nation’s way of 
doing business. Besides, many experts are still just coming 
around to accept the idea of true grass-roots involvement in con- 
servation projects themselves. Think how much easier it can be 
to go directly to the top and dictate policy from there down. 
Conservationists might not be as keen on the grass-roots ap- 
proach as they are these days had they not learned in one devel- 
oping country after another about the peril of throwing in solely 
with the government and ignoring the locals. The peril is that 
when a government topples — and, sooner or later, most do — 
the preserves and wildlife almost immediately follow if the res- 
idents have no stake in the resources protected there. For that 
matter, so long as people view those resources as an extension of 
an unpopular or repressive regime, they will work all the harder 
to loot them. 

A lack of attention to the local situation also affected the na- 



88 The Fate of the Elephant 


tional park operations at Amboseli. Apart from the percentage 
of gate fees due the Masai council, revenues generated by the re- 
serve went directly to the coffers of the national government. 
And in return? In return, barely 5 percent of all the revenues 
earned by Kenya’s system of parks and reserves went back into 
parks and reserves. This could be called starving the goose that 
laid the golden egg. Kenya’s major source of foreign revenue 
was tourism. And the majority of those tourists came to view 
wildlife. 

Amboseli, one of the most popular and crowded wildlife 
meccas, had only two working vehicles when I visited. The rest 
of the reserve’s fleet of jeeps and trucks were idled for want of 
parts costing pennies and lack of gasoline to run them if they 
ever were repaired. Rangers hitchhiked with me and anyone else 
they could flag down to get from one post to another. Their 
wages were not far above subsistence level; their morale, lower 
yet; their guns, outmoded World War I British Enfield bolt- 
action .303 s. These were the men who would be called upon «o 
risk their lives defending the elephants of Amboseli if and when 
the poachers arrived with their AK-47S. 

Until the 1970s, the park service had been semi-independent 
of the government, free to disburse its revenues as it saw fit. Da- 
vid Western told me of plans afoot to return to that arrangement 
in hopes of reversing the deterioration of Kenya’s system of 
parks and reserves. As for the problem of getting wildlife dollars 
more directly to local Masai, Western saw a partial solution in 
promoting more direct ownership of tourist facilities in and 
around the reserve. At the moment, the main lodges were 
owned by outside individuals and corporations. They earned 
terrific sums, charging tourists more than a hundred dollars a 
day, yet contributed practically nothing to the area other than 
the cost of their leases. David Western thought the Masai could 
develop lodges and souvenir shops of their own and upgrade the 
dusty, cattle-trampled campgrounds that a few of them operated 
along the periphery of Amboseli. They had already set up a 
concession to sell land to tour companies for the development of 
more camps, and the contract guaranteed the Masai a substantial 
income each year. 



East Africa: Amboseli 89 

I asked the idealist’s question: Wasn’t this commercial empha- 
sis further undercutting the traditional Masai way of life? And I 
got a realist’s reply: The proper question is, do the Masai them- 
selves want to be traditional Masai? The world is changing faster 
and faster, and the Masai are changing with it. Some of the 
younger generation are classroom-educated and increasingly fa- 
miliar with the gadgets and lifestyles of outside cultures. They 
may not necessarily want to spend their days following behind a 
bunch of cows and their flies. Soila Sayialel could have been one 
of a Masai herder’s several wives. She may yet be, one day. Or 
she may choose not to. Right now, she has chosen to study 
elephants. 

“Tourists always like the Masai,” David Maitumo said. 
“They like the spears and the red powder on the hair. The neck- 
laces the women make. The houses of cattle dung. All that.” He 
patted his factory-made trousers and white shirt, shrugged, and 
went back to writing up notes on our aerial census. 

Several days later, I was in the 1470-square-mile Kenyan reserve 
known as Masai Mara, or just the Mara, for short. Located west 
of Amboseli, the Mara protects a portion of the northern end of 
the 15,440-square-mile Serengeti ecosystem, most of which lies 
in Tanzania. Like Amboseli, the Mara is formed from Masai ter- 
ritory, with a share of revenues from gate fees and leases to tour- 
ist lodges going to the Masai council, and the reserve is bordered 
by traditional Masai pastoralists. It is no accident, then, that Ma- 
sai Mara still holds one of Kenya’s least disturbed elephant pop- 
ulations outside of Amboseli. 

Commercial ivory poachers had been obliterating the Seren- 
geti’s elephants on the Tanzanian side of the border. They had hit 
the Mara herds as well, but Kenya’s APUs had successfully 
knocked the gangs back. Such poaching as continued here was 
more the work of Tanzanian villagers who slipped across the 
border to take buffalo, eland, and the like for meat. Along die 
way, they had killed a couple of tourists and robbed a few others 
in remote sections of the reserve. Still, in comparison with other 



90 Thb Fate of the Elephant 

parts of the country, things were basically under control. The 
Mara was the core of an elephant population estimated at about 
I $00 and probably even increasing. Part of that increase was due 
to the wrong reason — habitat compression; elephants were 
moving in from lands lost to cultivation or rife with poachers. 
But once within the Mara region, they could still roam more or 
less freely between the reserve and Masai grazing territory, just 
as at Amboseli. 

At the time of my visit, nearly half the herds were outside the 
sanctuary’s official borders. It was then mid-March. The wet 
season was on its way. Roads through the western part of the re- 
serve, running through the fine volcanic soils known as black 
cotton dirt, were rapidly turning into quagmires of slick gumbo 
mud. The thunderstorms came each evening, rolling off a side 
wall of the Great Rift Valley escarpment to pour their water onto 
the plains below. The little rains had been so generous that the 
grass already stood shoulder-tall to a wildebeest: Themeda, red 
oat grass; Pennisetunr, and others I didn’t recognize. Thi^k, 
sweet-smelling, wind-rippled, wild grain — green seas of it 
rolled beyond the horizon to join the rest of the Serengeti. The 
smooth prairie cloak was broken only by scattered acacias, gi- 
raffes, and little, bare hillocks formed by weathered termite 
mounds. Standing sentinel on them were male topi, antelope 
with coats of burnished purple, scanning their surroundings for 
rival males and prides of lions — black-maned lions, character- 
istic of the Mara. By June, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest 
would be arriving, sweeping along the northern arc of their an- 
nual circuit through the Serengeti. This ecosystem holds more 
than a million of them all told. It is the greatest single mass of 
wild hooved animals left on the planet. 

For the first week 1 was at the Mara, I kept staring out across 
those plains and thinking of the native American savanna. 1 
found myself conjuring up plains grizzlies the color of cured 
grasses, plains wolves, the grazing complex of plains elk, mule 
deer, antelope . . . and sixty times more bison than the Serengeti 
has wildebeest. That was the greatest single mass of wild hooved 
animals on the planet. So little remained, so pitifully litde. Had 



East Africa: Ambosbli 91 

I not come to the Mara, I would never have been able to even 
sense what such a community might have been like. Sometimes 
I wished I hadn’t. The Mara plains made the loss too achingly 
real. 

Some two hundred elephants were spending their days in the 
woodlands along the Mara River. They left a perfect browse line 
there, pruning all the branches below about fifteen to eighteen 
feet, which is the height to which large bulls can reach with their 
trunks. Each afternoon, the giants emerged from the trees to be- 
gin grazing across marshes not far from the river, joining wa- 
terbuck and mud-coated buffalo. As the afternoon merged into 
evening, storm light would stream through gaps in the clouds 
and cast rainbows over the boundless savanna. Then, as the rain- 
bows dissolved into a topi-colored sunset, the elephants would 
march off in long hies northward across the plains to spend the 
night in the open country, feeding on fresh grass growth. And I 
would return to camp with memories of the sky full of fire and 
the earth full of great beasts, as if I were returning through time 
from the Age of Mammals. At the first light of dawn, I was 
there to see the giants file back across the plains through veils of 
rising mist and vanish into the woodlands lining the river, where 
the eyes of hippos and crocodiles glided along the water’s brown 
surface. 

Elephants are so big. The realization struck me afresh every 
day. From deep within the forest came the clacking of tusks 
from young males jousting, the snapping of branches, rumbles 
like the thrumming of an unseen waterfall. 1 could hear one of 
the giants scratching its side against a tree trunk hundreds of feet 
away. Yet their feet are cushioned with thick pads of fibrous tis- 
sue to support their great weight, and if they choose, elephants 
can walk up on you as silently as cats. Abruptly, one would 
emerge from the trees beside me. I would turn at a faint scuffling 
sound and find myself looking across at the belly of a big bull, 
then up and up at a huge head, and start back-pedaling, trying to 
act calm, promising myself to do a better job of heeding the 
park rule requiring visitors to stay in their vehicles. 

When I was chased off, it was almost always by the teenage 



$i The Fate op the Elephant 

females and young mothers in family groups. The bull bands 
more or less ignored me. Though not quite in my vehicle; I was 
at least on the roof when an enormous male appeared close by 
and began tusking at the bark of a thick combretum tree. He 
reached high to do this and finally worked a piece loose. He tore 
it off with his trunk, dropped it to the ground, and then moved 
on. I was about to go over and see what it smelled like when a 
second bull showed up and went over to sniff at the piece of bark 
himself. He then probed up the tree trunk uptil he found the 
place the first bull had gouged. The newcomer proceeded to 
reach as high as he could with his own tusks and tried to work 
another piece loose at the same spot. He managed to rake off a 
chunk just slightly lower, dropped it, and left. A third bull fol- 
lowed and repeated the whole procedure, also leaving a tusk 
mark on the trunk. Last came a male little more than half the size 
of the lead bull. This young one got his trunk on the freshly tom 
part of the tree but could not get close with his tusks, not even 
when he reared up and placed his forelegs against the tree. He 
settled for prying off a piece as high as he could, then followed 
the others out into the marshes. 

I was left with the distinct impression that this was not so 
much an attempt to get at a tasty section of bark as some sort of 
dominance-related male affair — perhaps like grizzly bears leav- 
ing scratch marks as high as possible on tree trunks, though the 
significance of that is not really understood either. The most in- 
teresting thing about the scene was the drongo perched on a slim 
branch of the first tree limb above the tusked section. The bird 
had just captured a large cicada and settled onto the branch with 
its prize when the first elephant began shaking the tree with its 
tusking. Clutching the cicada while being whipped sharply back 
and forth, the drongo rode out the entire elephant storm, watch- 
ing the giants with intense interest. When it was finally over, the 
bird methodically began picking apart the insect. 

After I caught up with the bulls in the marshes, 1 could no 
longer tell which they were, for seven different males were mill- 
ing around a single female. When one tried to mount her, two 
others ran up and butted the suitor off her. A fight erupted, with 



East Africa: Amboseli pj 

mud and dust exploding off the colliding heads of the rivals. The 
female ran back into the trees, immediately followed by three of 
the males. I could no longer see them clearly, but, following a 
tremendous roar and more sound of heads clashing, I noticed 
the drongo flying off to another copse of trees carrying the re- 
mains of its meal in its bill. 


With a young Masai named Tim Kapeen, I went north of the 
Mara to wander through Masai grazing lands for a while. I was 
sick of viewing wildlife from my car. I understood the reserve’s 
rules but was, as ever, constitutionally unable and unwilling to 
see the world while sitting on my rump. I felt drugged relating 
to the African bush in such a passive mode, as if I were watching 
an endless television special. After all, one of the greatest re- 
sources of this continent to someone from an overdeveloped na- 
tion is the opportunity to experience what it feels like to be just 
one more creature out there immersed in an environment that 
shaped our species. It has to do with appreciating at a gut level 
how many of those fellow creatures can strike you, stomp you 
flat, or rip your limbs off. It has to do with adrenaline and hu- 
mility, knowing what it is like* to feel occasionally like a predator 
and occasionally like prey. 

That was one reason I went with Tim — to walk. The other 
was that I wanted to see which routes the elephants took when 
they headed north for the night. Besides, more wildlife of cer- 
tain types could be found at that moment outside the reserve 
than inside it, and the ecological explanation was interesting. 
Until the wildebeest arrived with the onset of summer to mow 
down with sheer numbers the tall grass of the Mara reserve, the 
areas cropped by cattle outside the borders offered more young, 
sprouting grasses, which were both tastier and more nutritious 
as far as animals such as the hartebeest, topi, Thompson’s ga- 
zelle, impala, and zebra were concerned. 

The elephants I encountered were much warier than those in- 
side the reserve — warier and, at the same time, more aggressive 



94 Thb Fate op the Elephant 

if pressed. This was a pattern I would see repeated many times 
in the wild throughout Africa and Asia. I think it again shows 
how well the giants remember their encounters with people. For 
what it’s worth, my conclusion is that bad experiences can make 
them more shy in general but more prone to attack when sur- 
prised or seriously harassed. 

Tim was not yet twenty, but he was a veteran of raids into the 
Tanzanian border region to recover Masai cattle stolen by vil- 
lagers there. Once the spear fights were finished and the cattle 
recovered, the danger was not over. He still had to drive the cat- 
tle back through the reserve past park service wardens who 
could shoot him on sight as a suspected poacher. So he had to 
travel by night and hide in the brush with his herd as soon as it 
grew light. I found it ironic that a Masai within the reserve had 
to become perhaps even warier than an elephant traveling 
through Masai land outside the reserve. 

Tim was a treat to spend time with. He was a natural tutor: 
“Do you see the buffalo? There. Three bulls. . . . Ummm. Who 
made these droppings? Yes, hyena. And this digging? Honey 
badger. And look where the topi have been grazing. Just 
here. . . . Ummm. Do you remember the buffalo? Do you 
know where those buffalo are now? See those bushes you are 
walking straight toward? If it was pne alone, he might have 
charged by now. They are not so bad together.” 

Tim pointed out a tree called osokonoi in Masai — Warburgia 
ugandensis , the East African greenheart — with bark that resem- 
bled an elephant’s wrinkled hide. The Masai eat its fruit when it 
is ripe and sweet and use it for stomach medicine when it is still 
green and bitter. The elephants, he said, take the fruit when bit- 
ter, and it makes them crazy. The fruit has a very hot, spicy taste, 
and various observers claim to have noticed both elephants and 
baboons become unusually aggressive after feeding on it. Africa 
is full of tales of elephants getting drunk on the overripe, fer- 
mented nuts of the doum palm, Hyphaene coriacea. They may be 
exaggerations, inspired by the fact that people commonly make 
wine from the starchy heart of this widespread palm. I was more 
inclined to believe the many stories I heard of elephants raiding 



East Africa: Amboseli 95 

storehouses of fermenting grain and breaking into stills and pro- 
ceeding to get roaring drunk. 

Tim said the elephants' main enemies here were lions, wild 
dogs, and cobras, and that the wild dogs, which attack elephant 
babies, would defecate on the carcass to keep the family from 
lingering by it; otherwise they would stay around for as many as 
five days. He had seen elephants form a defensive circle around 
sick or injured companions and stay with them for at least that 
long. He pointed out that they will surround a sleeping com- 
panion the same way. He knew they would support a wounded 
companion while traveling by positioning themselves on each 
side and pressing against it, and would attempt to lift the animal 
with their trunks and tusks if it stumbled. 

Earlier, I had gone on patrol in the reserve with a nine-year 
veteran ranger, James Ampany, who told me he had seen bull el- 
ephants carry tender young branches as food to an old bull lying 
on its side, too weak to forage on its own. I knew that this kind 
of care had been documented by others as well. But when James 
also said he had seen mother elephants pick up newborn babies 
with their trunk and run with them to avoid danger, I was skep- 
tical. I had never heard of this in the wild. Ordinarily, elephant 
families bunch together when threatened. The infants run to 
stand directly under their mothers, usually toward the center of 
the group, leaving any would-be invader facing a solid fortress 
of elephant bodies. If the group flees, the babies stay beneath 
their mothers’ shuffling feet unless the group is running flat out, 
in which case the babies are better off racing at their mothers’ 
heels. 

No researcher I met could confirm the behavior of mothers 
lifting their babies. Yet farther along in my journeys in both Af- 
rica and Asia, 1 would speak with villagers who said they had 
seen elephant mothers lift their young over fences, and some- 
where along the way 1 recalled an elephant keeper at a zoo telling 
me of a mother lifting her baby up to get at a store of food. 
Many centuries ago, Pliny wrote: “The females in a herd often 
aid a youngster by pushing it up a bank or helping it out of a 
mud hole or river bed and even carry them at need.’’ On the 



96 The Fate op the Elephant 

other hand, Pliny passed on a lot of dubious information. Then 
I found this passage in the writings of Colonel J. H. “Elephant 
Bill” Williams, who oversaw hundreds of working Asian ele- 
phants for the Bombay-Burma Trading Company in the early 
1900s: “I believe that if she is disturbed, the mother elephant will 
carry her calf during its first month, holding it wrapped in her 
trunk. I have seen a mother pick up her calf this way." 

It is difficult to know where the facts give way to fables in the 
case of a creature with the learning abilities of $n elephant. For 
example, James and others mentioned seeing bulls break off 
heavy branches and use them as clubs in battles with other bulls. 
More likely, what they saw was an aggressive display — a big 
male’s version of the brandishing of branches I had seen among 
juvenile elephants. But then again, chroniclers in ancient times 
wrote of war elephants specifically trained to swing heavy ob- 
jects and throw missiles in combat. The trainers were building 
upon behaviors elephants naturally perform in a less directed 
way. Who is to say that a few elephants have not learned to chaQ.- 
nel such behavior on their own? Elephants caught in a trap in the 
wild will throw whatever they can reach at someone who ap- 
proaches and swing wildly at their tormentors with a handy 
branch or root. 1 know, because I had to dodge them. 

My most remarkable experience in Tim’s company had noth- 
ing to do with elephants except that we were looking for them 
at the time. Instead, we came upon a young male lion with two 
lionesses. They were working their way toward a Masai and his 
herd of cattle. As they drew closer, they began to belly along 
through the grass, then crouched to eye the cattle. The young 
male started growling. His tail switched with excitement. He 
half-rose to coil for a running start several times. 

“We’d better help that man,” I said. 

“No,” Tim said firmly. “He knows the lions are there. This 
is for him to do. He would not want us to interfere.” 

The herder stood staring straight at the cats and slowly raised 
his spear to a throwing position without once moving his gaze 
away. From a distance, other herders who had noticed the man’s 
posture drew nearer to watch the stand-off, but not too near. 



East Africa: Amboseu yj 

They, too, thought that this was for him to do. This was what 
he had been trained for as a moran. Each time the male lion 
growled and poised itself, the man would shake his spear and 
spread his stance a bit. Each time the cat was still, the man was 
still, matching the animal’s steadfast, golden-eyed stare. The 
stand-off continued for a quarter of an hour. At last, the lions 
crouched away into a line of thomscrub. Had the herder com- 
municated the slightest hesitation or fear, I think they would 
have gone for his cattle in a flash. If these youngish lions hadn’t 
known much about the Masai when they started, they knew 
something now, and it might help them survive among people 
in the future. 

Although the Masai have plenty of traditional tales about 
mighty lions, the heroes of their folk tales tend to be the little 
fellows — a mongoose or a hare. As for the elephant, Masai fables 
regard the great beast more for its sagacity — its elephantine wis- 
dom — than for its size and strength. 

Among many Masai, it is considered the greatest good for- 
tune to find the afterbirth of an elephant, I learned from David 
Round-Turner, one of the original wardens of Masai Mara. 
Only a single family in the Narok district, which takes in the 
Mara, was known to have discovered one. They were now very 
wealthy. Upon finding an afterbirth, tradition called for the 
herder to construct a rough boma (corral) with as many doors as 
he has wives (or, in the case of a bachelor, as he wishes to have 
wives), then spend the night inside with no fear of harm befall- 
ing him. Soon, the herder and his family would find themselves 
accumulating large herds of healthy, fertile cattle. A related be- 
lief holds that a small piece of dried elephant ear ground into 
powder and ingested would relieve the suffering of a woman 
with a retained afterbirth. 

Since they did not traditionally hunt elephants, the Masai pre- 
sumably collected material from carcasses found in the country- 
side. From the tail hairs, they braided bracelets and necklaces, 
and from the tusks, they made more bracelets and the rungus, or 
staff of authority, carried by chiefs. , 

At a meeting in a lodge along the Mara River, I met several 



98 The Fate of the Elephant 

Masai chiefs carrying staffs of authority. A couple were dressed 
in traditional red robes, the others in suits. They represented 
Masai group ranches. Also present were hoteliers from Nairobi 
and high-ranking officers from the APU in Narok dressed in 
camouflage gear. The meeting concerned future development 
plans for the Mara. Before it began, I cornered one of the APU 
officers, Franco Kamanja, to ask about poaching in the area. He 
had been in dozens of fireflghts, he said, and described a few. 
But he soon grew bored with providing what samounted to the 
usual fodder for eager journalists and turned the discussion 
around by asking me a series of far more penetrating questions. 

“I understand that many states in your country do not believe 
in capital punishment,” Franco noted. “Tell me, what do Amer- 
icans think of killing a man for killing an animal? What about a 
poacher who is just hunting meat for food? Under our new di- 
rective, we are to treat him the same as a commercial poacher. 
What state are you from? Do you shoot poachers in Montana? 
Do your conservationists approve of shooting trespassers yi 
your national parks?” 

The inequity of foreigners with genteel sensibilities support- 
ing shoot-to-kill measures to protect African wildlife goes hand 
in hand with First World attitudes about what it is pleased to call 
the Third World and white attitudes about blacks — is that what 
he wanted me to say? No, he just wanted to make me think hard 
about it. He succeeded. I was stumped. Embarrassed. Admir- 
ing. He grilled me a while longer and then, as if he were privy 
to my innermost thoughts, inquired, “And what of your Great 
Plains? Didn’t it once have even more wildlife than Kenya? 
Where are your animals?” 

“Geez, Franco, give me a break.” 

He smiled and said, “We have learned from your mistakes, 
perhaps.” 

On that note, the meeting began, punctuated by hippo grunts 
from the river. The main speaker was Dr. Perez Olindo, director 
of Kenya’s Wildlife Service. He had a twofold purpose. One in- 
volved increased tourism. The Masai leaders already supported 
it. A step beyond Amboseli, everyone was already gung-ho to 



East Afkica: Ambosbli 99 

put in more lodges, roads, and other facilities for visitors all 
over the place. That was the problem: haphazard development. 
“There is a way of promoting tourism, and there is a way of 
killing it,” Olindo said. “We must do this with the least change 
to the scenery and wildlife people come to see.” 

Olindo’s second purpose was to announce that big money, 
serious money, was being made available through a special 
package from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), European Eco- 
nomic Community (EEC), and World Bank. The funds were 
earmarked for community improvement — schools, hospitals, 
transportation services, veterinary work, and so on. But Olindo 
wanted to make it clear that they would be linked to Masai ef- 
forts to practice conservation of the greater Mara ecosystem. In 
other words, the cash was intended as a reward for leaving room 
for wildlife. 

“We want to get money not to a few pockets but directly to 
villagers, and in proportion to each villager’s habitat require- 
ments,” is how Olindo phrased it for me later. “The threat is that 
the Masai here are converting extensive areas of plains in the 
northern extension of the Mara to agriculture. No, not regular 
crops; they require too much water. But the same conditions 
that cause tall grasses to flourish can support wheat. There are 
plans to go to wheat farming on a massive scale, promoted by 
our Kenyan agricultural agencies, the FAO [Food and Agricul- 
ture Organization, a branch of the United Nations], and Amer- 
ican advisors. Those areas are rich in wildlife and vital to the 
whole ecosystem. 

“Yes, yes, Kenya needs to feed its rapidly growing popula- 
tion. But not with the Mara, because what can sustain millions 
of animals will not yield agriculture over the long run. The soil 
will be exhausted within three to five years, if drought does not 
ruin the crops first. This scheme is for dryland farming, utterly 
dependent upon rainfall. People have already tried farming in 
the very upper end of the Mara ecosystem. It ends up being 
shifting cultivation on a massive scale as they go from one 
worked-out area to another. The encouragement to convert pas- 
tures to farmland comes solely from subsidies and from the 



ioo The Fate of the Elephant 

quick money people can make selling off their grazing land. We 
must talk about what can be sustained over the long run. 1 tell 
them that the Mara, developed properly, is something that 
makes money even while they sleep. Tourism — you don’t have 
to dip it for ticks, nor inoculate it, nor herd it, nor plow it and 
cut it and store it. 

“Wisdom is not confined to people who have been in a class- 
room,” Perez continued. “These people, the Masai, have 
survived because they understand their environment. They un- 
derstand very well when I talk about bringing their land up to its 
natural potential, to use the grasses and the soils the best way 
possible — and that is to grow animals. Cattle, if they wish. 
Wildlife most definitely. Nothing else is so efficient. Over the 
years, this approach will be the best way for them to improve 
their lifestyle. People cannot easily see that far ahead. They want 
money now. Well, with this new program, we can offer them 
that.” 

Several days afterward, Holly Dublin, a conservation biolo- 
gist specializing in the Mara, filled in some details for me. 
“Right now, 70 percent of the funds for projects in the Masai’s 
Narok district come from the Map reserve. Less than 1 percent 
goes to people immediately adjoining the reserve — the ones 
most affected by wildlife. That is the inequality conservationists 
are trying to rectify with the WWF/EEC/World Bank money. 
People lump the Masai together, but there are a number of 
subgroups. The fl-Purko. subgroup is not native. They were 
transplanted here by the Brits from the Laikipia Hills. They’ve 
done well for themselves with revenues from the Mara, but they 
aren’t especially inclined to share it with different subgroups. 
They distribute the money to other Purkos and their projects, 
especially this wheat-growing business. Funds also get fiddled 
and filtered off to God knows where. Individuals have become 
millionaires off the Mara through owning lodges, yet they have 
little or nothing to do personally with conservation. 

“We’ve already got elephants raiding new fields up north,” 
Holly continued, ", and it’s going to get messier. But the scary 
part of wheat farming isn’t just the conversion of habitat. It’s the 



East Africa: Amboseli ioi 


conversion of ownership. The land used to be controlled by a 
few private people — tribal leaders, mainly — but grazed as a 
commons. In the sixties, following independence, these hold- 
ings became group ranches, literally owned by groups of people. 
If the group approves, a ranch can be broken down now into 
small, individual properties that may be sold or leased indepen- 
dently. And I mean small. People are selling off one-acre plots. 
Some Masai want to divide up the Koyaki group ranch just north 
of the Mara. It’s a key wildlife area, and it’s a wildebeest calving 
ground for the entire Serengeti. Imagine it subdivided. In eco- 
system matters here, we’ve been dealing with maybe half a 
dozen individuals representing the group ranches. Some may be 
tough, some may be even corrupt, or at least less scrupulous 
than you’d like. But it’s a heckuva lot easier than dealing with 
4000 individual landowners after subdivision. Besides, they’ll 
wind up fencing it all and stopping movement through the eco- 
system anyway.” 

Having invested the better part of his career in wildlife con- 
servation at the Mara, David Round-Turner put it this way for 
me: “So far, we don’t really manage wildlife in the reserve. We 
don’t have to impose heavy-handed human manipulation — cull- 
ing, artificial waterholes, predator control, the divine right sort 
of stuff. We manage people and let the ecosystem run itself. But 
ultimately, all this will be fenced and heavily, intensively man- 
aged. With this specter of burgeoning population” — adding im- 
migration of farmers from other ethnic groups to an already 
high birth rate, the Mara was undergoing an 1 1 . 5 percent annual 
increase in people — “human needs will be paramount. The best 
we can do, our only real achievement, is to slow down the de- 
terioration of wildlife.” 



FOUR 


East Africa: 
Tsavo 


15151515* Back in Nairobi, elephants were much in the 
news, and the news was truly international. In Angola, where 
Cuban communist troops guarded American oil company wells 
from American-supported rebels, the rebels were still financing 
their weapons with poached ivory laundered by Afrikaner mil- 
itary people, who sent the ivory on through their Hong Kong 
connections labeled as tusks from legal culling operations m 
South Africa. When a plane full of smuggled tusks bound from 
Angola to South Africa crashed en route, one of the passengers 
was revealed to be the son of the president of Portugal, Angola’s 
former colonial master. In Tanzania, the Indonesian ambassador 
was busted trying to leave the country with trunks full of tusks. 
Two Germans and an Austrian were arrested after two Tanza- 
nian dhows (traditional Arab sailing vessels) were intercepted on 
their way to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates loaded with sev- 
enty tons of poached ivory ultimately destined for France, 
where it would be made into bijouterie and piano keys. Some- 
times, East African tusks that were successfully smuggled by 
dhow to Dubai were then flown to Zaire, where they were given 
forged certificates identifying them as legal ivory, then reex- 
ported, often to Belgium and France. French diplomatic papers 
were known to have been doctored along the way to make the 
going smoother. The Republic of Congo alone had exported 130 
tons of ivory to Paris in 1984. And yet some of the Parisian out- 
lets, along with the Zairean dealers, were ultimately associated 



East Africa: Tsavo 103 


with the same Hong Kong ivory syndicates sucking Angolan 
ivory out through South Africa. The Hong Kong network had 
established dummy corporations and retail outlets in nations 
throughout the globe. 

For all its sophisticated international convolutions, the ivory 
trade still began with the dirty business of blasting elephants in 
the field and hacking out their tusks. In Amboseli and Masai 
Mara, I had been in what were probably the two best places 
in East Africa to ignore that business. But just forty miles east 
of Amboseli began the killing fields of Tsavo National Park. 
At least forty elephants and one ranger had been shot to death 
in Tsavo during the last week I was in Masai Mara. GSU 
troops killed a thirteen-year-old boy herding cattle in the area. 
There were daily reports of new elephant carcasses being 
discovered. . . . 

“The Kenya government is strenuously avoiding publicity 
over the shooting of several hundred elephants now taking place 
in Tsavo National Park. . . . Because wildlife is a major source 
of income, the government doesn’t want to draw attention to 
the shooting,” read one newspaper article. It was from 1968. 

Tsavo ’s 7720 square miles were set aside by the British colonial 
administration in 1947, protecting an immense expanse of 
scrubland dominated by thorny Commiphora shrubs. One native 
life form not protected was the indigenous Wata tribe, also called 
the Wakamba. Traditional elephant hunters, they used a long- 
bow more powerful than any carried in medieval Europe and ar- 
rows dipped in a poison potent enough to stop a huge heart 
within minutes after the elephant was shot, usually in the soft 
underbelly. By merely continuing to do what their clans had al- 
ways done, the nomadic Wakamba abruptly became trespassers 
and poachers. Park wardens waged a low-level battle against 
them for years. 

By the time the most notorious, which is to say skilled, Wa- 
kamba giant-slayers had been rounded up, the whole contest had 
become irrelevant. Poaching and settlement around the park 
were driving elephants into Tsavo ’s wild stretches in unprece- 
dented numbers. Depending upon drought cycles, the parklands 



104 The Fate op thb Elephant 

might ordinarily hold anywhere from 10,000 to, at most, 20,000 
elephants. By the late 1960s, the population, swollen with ref- 
ugees and increasingly cut off from traditional migratory routes, 
was approaching an estimated 42,000. They were trampling the 
countryside into dust, degrading the range used by other wild- 
life along with their own. 

Various authorities called for a culling program to reduce their 
numbers. Another faction, led by chief park warden David 
Sheldrick, urged forbearance. Let nature take its course, they 
said. Our task is not to impose some preconceived notion of a 
proper balance on Tsavo but, rather, to wait and see what hap- 
pens and learn from it. Isn’t that what parks are for? We won’t 
learn about nature, countered the culling proponents, because 
this is not a natural situation to begin with. Humans wrought 
the habitat changes that forced so many elephants to seek refuge 
in Tsavo; humans must repair it before the park habitat is de- 
stroyed as well. 

A philosophical Great Rift has always split the conservatism 
community, and I cannot think of how to define it other than in 
somewhat simplistic fashion. On the one side are people drawn 
to animals because they intrinsicaPy care for them. Their con- 
cern is an extension of emotional drives, foremost among them 
the human capacity for sympathy. They tend to believe that na- 
ture knows best, that animals have every right to exist for their 
own sake, and that they should be set aside unmolested in wild- 
lands to be observed and enjoyed. 

On the other side are people who envision wildlife as a re- 
source that we have a right to direct as we see fit. Their concern 
is an extension of the human drive to improve and master. They 
are inclined to believe that, without our guidance, nature can be 
somewhat messy and inefficient and that it benefits from more 
intensive management. For many in their ranks, the goal of ma- 
nipulating wildlife populations and habitats is primarily con- 
sumptive — to produce a supply of meat, fur, hides, hunting 
opportunities, and trophies. 

lo risk simplifying things even further, the one side believes 
that people should stop doing so many things to wildlife. 



East Africa: Tsavo io$ 

whereas the other believes the answer to saving wildlife is to do 
more things to it. Hand off versus hands on. At times, the 
reverence-for-nature school can grade into righteousness, escap- 
ing from the flood of everyday realities and politics to moral 
high ground. Conversely, the more pragmatic, utilitarian ap- 
proach can grade into what Joyce Poole described as the male- 
oriented imperative to “take charge, even if you don’t know 
what you’re doing.’’ 

There was the rub. Neither side really knew enough about 
either elephants or the long-term dynamics of African ecosys- 
tems to set forth a compelling argument. That in itself was seen 
by some as a good reason to leave matters in Tsavo alone. The 
argument was still raging when drought struck. Between 1970 
and 1972 alone, some 6000 elephants died of starvation and 
thirst. You see? cried the culling advocates: a disaster. See what? 
replied the others. Is it somehow better to die from a bullet? 

They were still arguing when poachers in unprecedented 
numbers began to slip in, lured by the tusks strewn across the 
countryside — and by the more than 35,000 elephants that had 
survived. The majority of the illegal hunters were no longer lo- 
cal ethnic groups but Somalis, themselves victims of drought, 
which had displaced subsistence farmers and herders across 
much of Somalia. In the process, it had also exacerbated political 
conflicts. That, in turn, had led to an influx of weapons. Here, 
then, came poachers who were not only tough and bush-savvy 
but well armed and unafraid of battle. Fellow Muslims, who 
made up the majority of eastern Kenya’s population, provided a 
network of food supplies, transportation, hide-outs, and caches 
for weapons and tusks. Continuing economic failure and civil 
unrest in Somalia produced a steady supply of new poaching re- 
cruits and AK-47S, along with vehicles and communication 
gear. 

People called them shifta — bandits, outlaws. But Kenyan an- 
tipoaching forces had arrested more than a few regular Somali 
soldiers, in uniform, among them. In fact, it appeared that the 
impoverished Somali government was encouraging the raid on 
Kenya’s ivory troves, having exhausted its own supply. I sensed 



io6 Thb Fate of the Elephant 


a powerful undercurrent of political tension about this aspect 
of poaching. Many Kenyans saw it as an unofficial invasion by 
a neighbor feared to have grander designs beyond its borders 
on the Muslim-dominated territory that was once part of 
Somaliland. 

Like Amboseli, Tsavo had seen its infrastructure and staff mo- 
rale steadily erode since the national parks department was ab- 
sorbed into the government and subjected to a continuing 
drought of funds. Through most of the 1970^ and 1980s, illegal 
grazers drove herds almost at will through the parklands while 
poaching gangs essentially controlled large portions of Tsavo ’s 
backcountry. By the time I reached Kenya, special military 
forces had been stationed in the park and joined with APU units 
to clear out much of the livestock. But barely 5000 elephants re- 
mained. And still the killing went on. 

I flew into Tsavo in a light plane. Oria Douglas-Hamilton sat 
in one seat, and her husband, Iain, was at the controls. As we 
crossed over the Tsavo boundary, a spectacular terrain of irop- 
red rock outcroppings thrust upward from sandy plains of the 
same color. Termite mounds stood scattered like more hills in 
miniature. Waterholes took on the appearance of ganglia in 
skeins of game trails across the scruo. Ipomoea, a morning glory- 
like vine with white blossoms, lit up clusters of bushes, and 
doum palms lined the edges of rivers. Nowhere, however, did I 
see an elephant until, well into the park, Oria finally pointed be- 
low and said, “There!” 

A section of scrub several acres in size lay surrounded by a 
fence. Inside were several elephants the fired-brick color of Tsa- 
vo’s soil. With them were a handful of black rhinos. They were 
the last of the 5000 rhinos that had inhabited Tsavo two decades 
earlier, representing Africa's largest population. As with ele- 
phants, drought had taken some, poachers the rest. These sur- 
viving Tsavo rhinos were enclosed by an electric fence and under 
round-the-clock guard in their little sanctuary within a sanctu- 
ary. The elephants, Oria told me, came in by themselves, be- 
cause they knew that this little plot was safe. The big ones 
stepped over the electric wires. Those with young held the wires 
down for them with thick-padded feet or insulating tusks. 



East Africa: Tsavo 107 


Farther on, Iain spotted a family at a waterhole and began to 
exclaim, “Ah ha, look at them! This is lovely. This is how Tsavo 
used to be everywhere. It was an elephant world.” He was grin- 
ning to himself. Iain was playing hooky; he was supposed to be 
back in a Nairobi office, wearing a suit and writing up reports 
for the World Wildlife Fund, not chasing elephants in Tsavo. 

A short distance beyond the family, vultures flapped away 
from a treetop. Iain strained to look out the side window and 
said, “Oh *!#@%, here we go.” Circling down, we saw an el- 
ephant, red like the other ones, lying by a reddish-brown pool 
of dried blood. It had no face. That had been cut off to get at the 
tusks. Four lions appeared a moment later, moving in the direc- 
tion of the carcass. More miles brought more carcasses, and then 
we landed alongside the Tsavo River near the tent camp of Ted 
Goss, a long-time Kenya wildlife manager currently working 
for the World Wildlife Fund. 

We had not been there fifteen minutes exchanging news be- 
fore the ranger in charge of the rhino sanctuary ran up with the 
news that a tourist had been shot in the stomach by bandits. 
“That’s just what we feared. With all the poachers and guns in 
this place and fewer elephants for them to find, we’ve been wait- 
ing for this to happen,” Iain said as we raced back to the plane. 
Ted roared off in his Cessna Super Cub. We were airborne just 
behind him, with Iain muttering, “This will really put the fat in 
the fire. By God, I’d like to catch those bastards!” 

We tried. I had wondered how the trip would turn out ever 
since I noticed back in Nairobi that Iain had thrown a flak jacket 
in with the rest of his gear. The reports on the park radio channel 
were confusing, but we established that a tourist van had been 
ambushed just a mile or two beyond the park’s western bound- 
ary on the road to Ainboseli. Eventually, we reached the road, 
then a van with people beside it and what looked like bullet holes 
on its side as we roared by. The tourist — a German woman — 
had been taken off with bullet wounds in her stomach and leg. 
A second tourist, a man, had suffered minor injuries. No sign of 
the bandits so far, said the voices on the radio. 

Iain began to sweep over the nearest hills. He was plainly gal- 
vanized. In his consuming rol e as a leader of the struggle to save 



io8 The Fate of the Elephant 

Africa's elephants, he had found it neccessary to devote ever 
more of his time to office-bound meetings and administrative 
duties. But this was a man known for standing his ground in the 
face of a full-blown elephant charge while swinging a survey tri- 
pod wildly over his head. During a stint with the game depart- 
ment of Uganda, he hunted down poachers by airplane as his 
daily routine. He would probably not have paid much attention 
to a bullet or two perforating his wings now. I had the impres- 
sion that he would have preferred it to returning to his desk. 

The plane’s stall light and buzzer were on the whole time as 
we circled tightly over canyons and boulder fields that could 
have hidden the gunmen. We made out giraffes among the trees 
and hartebeests and zebras watching us from the shade of 
bushes. But it was futile to hope that we would catch a glimpse 
of the bandits, unless they were incredibly stupid, for the terrain 
had become a maze of geologically fresh, ropy lava flows, 
twisted gullies, and volcanic rubble too coarse to hold a set of 
tracks. 

•> 

We flew back and landed next to park headquarters at Voi, 
where the tents of a paramilitary GSU encampment rose not far 
from a luxury safari lodge. The day before, we learned, bandits 
had robbed a lodge in the Taita Hills, between Tsavo East and 
Tsavo West. Not long before that, they had held up a private 
ranch bordering the park on the east. At about the same time, 
tourists in Tsavo were watching in horror as elephants with 
blood pouring from fresh bullet wounds staggered in to the 
drinking hole below the lodge. Several elephant families re- 
mained close to the lodge and headquarters, probably recogniz- 
ing that they were more secure there than farther afield. And yet 
when the chief ranger, Joe Kioko, had left headquarters for a 
meeting in Nairobi, elephants were shot awfully close to Voi. It 
looked like an inside job. Someone had opened the gate to a park 
road that led to the elephants and locked it shut behind them. 
Everyone was suspect, from the local rangers to the elite GSU 
troops. Some whispered that Joe himself was in on it, despite the 
fact that he had won honors for leading the long and desperate 
fight against poaching here. Whoever the real poachers were, it 
paid to keep things confused this way. 



East Africa: Tsavo 109 


I found Joe Kioko at the safari lodge bar, nursing a badly 
needed beer. He looked more than exhausted. He looked beaten. 
He had been flying his own light plane almost nonstop looking 
for poachers, landing after dark on an unlit field, sometimes 
with bullet holes in the fuselage. “We’ve shot something like 
seventeen or eighteen poachers in the last four or five months. 
You think you’re winning a little, and then there is an eruption 
of elephant killings like we have now,” he sighed. “I’m flying 
nine-and-a-half hours a day. 1 have a crook in my neck from 
constantly looking out the window. I’m tired; I’m understaffed. 
You literally have no time for yourself. We work flat out. We 
didn't know what Christmas was. We need more men and 
equipment to close off certain corridors. We have to abandon the 
northern part of Tsavo East for tourist use. We have no control 
there. ...” He sounded like a besieged commandant in the 
midst of a war, which is essentially what he was. 

“In some ways,” he continued, “the poaching was worse in 
the 1 970s. It involved a lot of big shots in the country.” Notably 
the family of then-president Jomo Kenyatta, he might have 
added but didn’t. “Now it is mostly mercenaries from outside. 
These Somali guys fight back. Every time. They never throw 
down their guns. Always a shootout.” I bought us another 
round, and he resumed. “I keep telling myself, what we do isn’t 
just for Kenya. It is for the whole world. Then I wonder: Is it fair 
to ask a poorer country like Kenya to solve everything? Man, we 
have to have money for education, for roads, for food. These 
tusks are not ending up in Kenya, you know. Sometimes I get 
discouraged seeing countries — rich countries lij^e your United 
States — continuing to buy ivory while we have to go after the 
Somalis out here.” 

Over the days that followed, I looked hard for elephants and 
found mostly dead ones. I learned to locate them the same way 
scavenging lions find carcasses, by watching the sky for vul- 
tures. Once I found the first of a group, the stench would lead 
me to the rest of the family. Four bodies here, six there, another 
two across the gully, whitewashed with vulture droppings, 
putrefying under the sun until the flesh liquefied and oozed out 
onto the sandy ground, leaving a great, deflated-looking enve- 



lope of hide. Always, the bodies were faceless. After four or five 
days under the African sun, an elephant corpse is soft enough for 
a man to pull the tusks loose. Before that, they must be chopped 
free. The severed trunk might lie somewhere nearby, like the 
carcass of a strange and separate organism. The tough pads of 
the feet would rot off and rest on the ground like grey saucers. 

Iain said, “You’re seeing the real end of the game now — the 
final part of the story.” 

I stayed briefly with Simon Trevor, a former Tsavo warden 
who had turned to making wildlife films. An honorary warden 
still, he occupied a house within the park near Voi and there kept 
company with an assortment of beasts, including a ground 
hombill, various tame owls, and a honey badger, or ratel. A 
member of the mustelid, or weasel, family, the ratel closely re- 
sembles North America’s wolverine, both in physical appear- 
ance and in its reputation for ferocity. Like the wolverine, the 
long-clawed ratel will attack animals many times its size. Stories 
of how it supposedly kills large bull antelopes by rushing up and 
raking off their testicles linger in the mind. Which explains why 
my first few meetings with these predators resulted in a 180- 
pound man stampeding away from a little beast that weighed 
less than twenty pounds. Simon’s ratel was friendly as could be. 

The ratel was another species partly dependent upon the ele- 
phant’s presence in the ecosystem, Simon informed me. More 
than a hundred kinds of dung beetles could be found in this re- 
gion. The insects lay their eggs in manure, which serves as a 
food source for the developing larvae. First, however, the adults 
may pack the manure into a ball and roll it away to a relatively 
safe place. Some roll it along the ground, others push it up to be 
attached to the stems of shrubs. Many burrow directly under the 
manure pile and pack the droppings into underground storage 
chambers, where the grubs feed and metamorphose toward 
adulthood. After rain softens the soil, they emerge and go on to 
mate and repeat the life cycle. 

At night, the largest of Tsavo’s dung beetles, Heliocopris, 
would sometimes fly into the illuminated porch where I sat lis- 
tening to the lions of Tsavo proclaim their territory. To have one 



East Africa: Tsavo hi 


of these beetles hit something and fall onto your shoulder or lap 
can be startling, because some of them are four inches long. I 
had seen them rolling spheres of wet dung nearly the size of soc- 
cer balls across the plains, and now, in the lamplight, I under- 
stood how. Even when I squeezed hard to hold them in my 
hand, these animals could pry my grip loose by pushing with 
their hind legs. In the field, the beetle used those powerful legs 
to roll the dung ball while pressing the ridged forward edge of 
its thoracic shell into the ground to anchor its body while it 
shoved. It had definite intentions about which way that ball was 
to go. If I stopped a beetle’s progress and rolled the ball a short 
way along a different tack — quintessential human behavior; 
hmmm, let’s screw up this bug’s plans and see what it does — the 
beast would climb atop its ball, taking a bearing, presumably 
from the sun, climb down, and resume rolling along in the same 
direction as before. Upon reaching its chosen destination, Helio- 
copris still had the chore of burying the ball, and it buried the 
thing three to four feet deep. 

An adult African elephant typically consumes between 250 
and 500 pounds of forage daily and excretes 90 percent of it as 
feces. Simon estimated that at its peak in Tsavo, the elephant 
population was producing up to 10 million pounds of manure 
every day. Dung beetle paradise. As for the ratels, the earth be- 
neath their feet was a larder of plump grubs. Prowling along 
with its nose low to the -ground, a rate! is able to scent the dung 
balls through several feet of soil and dig them up. Dung beetle 
larvae form an important source of protein in the ratel’s diet, and 
Heliocopris are its favorite. 

On the ground, I searched in vain for live elephants in the 
backcountry. 1 spent an entire day marching double time across 
the bush following Danny Woodley, the son of former Tsavo 
warden Bill Woodley, archenemy of poachers in the days of the 
Wakamba. Danny was on one of his surveys for black rhino 
sign, hoping to End at least a few of these animals somewhere 
beyond the little pasture ringed by electric fencing. With us were 
several rangers and Elui Chthenge, a Wakamba elephant poacher 
arrested by Bill Woodley four decade? earlier and employed by 



ii2 The Fate of the Elephant 


him as a tracker ever since. Elui turned up the fire pits and camp- 
sites of poaching gangs but no rhino tracks. Nor had Danny 
found any in the hundreds of miles he had covered earlier. That 
night, we heard that President Daniel Arap Moi had responded 
to the shooting of the two tourists at Tsavo. Moi announced that 
the future of Tsavo and other Kenya parks and reserves was to 
ring them all with electric fences. This, he proclaimed, would 
keep livestock out and wildlife in and gain better control over 
park boundaries in general — by implication, better control over 
the incursion of poachers. To me, it implied ari end to migration, 
natural dispersal, long-term adjustment to weather patterns, and 
gene flow. 

The next day, I saw only one cluster of elephants — leaderless 
subadults and babies. They raced away in terror before 1 was 
even close enough to guess their ages. Simon told me he regu- 
larly saw groups of four to six motherless young off by them- 
selves, and it depressed him to know that half of them would 
never make it on their own. Actually, the prospects are worse 
than that. Joyce Poole had told me that virtually every elephant 
calf orphaned under the age of two dies. Those orphaned be- 
tween ages three and five have just a 30 percent chance of sur- 
vival. Only those between the ages of six and ten have a 50 
percent chance, but no more than that. 

A related study by Phyllis Lee, who worked with the Am- 
boseli team, concerned allomothers — the immature females 
who help take care of older females’ babies within the family. As 
early as age three, females begin looking after their little broth- 
ers, sisters, or cousins, keeping the infants out of trouble and 
alerting the mother if serious danger develops. Lee found that 
this type of care has a significant effect on the survival of calves. 
Those with more than four allomothers enjoyed a survival rate 
of more than 84 percent; those with three or four allomothers, 
81 percent; one or two allomothers, 79 percent; and those infants 
with no allomothers, just a 68 percent chance of survival. This, 
remember, is when the mother is around. The baby of many a 
young adult female may suckle its mother but actually spend 
more time in the company of an older female — an aunt or 



East Africa: Tsavo 113 

grandmother. Besides providing additional care and attention to 
its needs, the elder female offers the youngster extra learning, 
passing on her store of experience and home range knowledge. 

Thus, the quality of care a young elephant receives depends 
not only upon the presence of its mother but upon the presence 
of both older and younger females within the family. As any one 
of these social supports is removed by poaching, infant survival 
decreases. When Joyce surveyed Tsavo, shortly before I met her, 
she found that 45 percent of the young elephants were either or- 
phans or in groups missing most of the adults. She also found 
that adult males were scarce throughout the park. Tsavo West 
had only thirteen males of any age for every hundred females. 

In this part of Africa, male tusks become noticeably larger and 
heavier than those of females by about age seventeen, sometimes 
earlier. By the age of sixty, a bull carries six times the weight of 
ivory that a female does. Poachers have always sought out the 
big males first, followed by the medium-size bulls. In the ab- 
sence of dominant males, breeding behavior can become more 
chaotic. Then the poachers begin to turn to the females — the 
mothers and grandmothers with the longest ivory. The ma- 
triarchs are often the very first to fall anyway, for they are among 
the first to defend their families from attack, and a matriarch’s 
death makes it easier to bring down the others. “Bang!” ex- 
claimed Iain. “There goes the reproducing part of the popula- 
tion — and its learned traditions involving migratory routes, 
dry-season water sources, salt licks, and so on. The whole so- 
ciety begins to collapse.” There goes the culture, the accumu- 
lated wisdom of generations about how to use the land and its 
resources. Boom! The females fall faster as ivory grows more 
scarce. Crack! There go the allomothers. And not long after- 
ward, with a whimper and the soft scrape of flesh on earth, there 
go the orphans. They get lost, starve, trap themselves in mud- 
holes and crevices from which an adult would ordinarily have 
pulled them, and succumb to predators undefended. Cynthia 
Moss, Joyce Poole, Iain, Oria, Simon, and many others I was 
still to meet told me they believed elephants could also literally 
die of grief. 



1 14 The Fate op the Elephant 

I took to the air with Iain once more, and we located what 
may have been the largest single elephant group left in the park, 
perhaps six hundred of them crossing the Ndara Plains of Tsavo 
East. This being the wet season with abundant new vegetation, 
the elephants normally formed larger groups than at other times 
of year. Yet lain thought one of this size might also reflect the 
tendency of harassed elephants to bunch into big, terrified 
herds. The next day, I tried to locate the same herd by car, eager 
to watch their behavior. I found fresh sign from the herd and fol- 
lowed it through the green scrub to the edge of a river; but the 
tracks led across, and I had to give them up as lost for the day. 

I looked over the massive trunks of baobab trees deeply 
gouged by elephants that had been seeking the moist tissues in- 
side almost two decades earlier during the bad drought. I could 
see fresh, red mud rubbed off against the trunks of younger trees 
by the passing herd. In one tree perched a pair of fire-fronted 
bishops, a type of finch. Close by, three long-necked gerenuk 
reared on their hind legs to feed on the new leaves of shrubby 
commiphora. 

Granted, it was the rainy season — a good rainy season — and 
the country looked exceptionally lush. Yet even without new fo- 
liage, the impressive height and density of the trees and shrubs 
told a story of how quickly this land had renewed itself since the 
time of too many elephants and too little rain. Photographs 
taken in Tsavo in the 1970s showed a sere, blasted, mineral land- 
scape that looked like the day after the end of the world. The 
thick vegetation around me now didn’t prove that the advocates 
of culling were entirely wrong — only that this land was perhaps 
more resilient than they realized. Portions of it were already 
turning into bush and young forest almost too thick to push 
through. The sad thing was that we still hadn’t learned much 
about the healthy, long-term relationship of elephants and their 
habitat — only how prolific the habitat could be when elephants 
were all but wiped out of it. 

Then I heard a trumpet and the sounds of splashing. I crept 
through the shrubs toward the river. They were there, scores 
upon scores of them, churning the water and wallowing in the 



East Africa: Tsavo ii$ 


mud along shore. Two new calves tried to spray themselves. Still 
uncertain about the operation of their trunks, they missed as 
often as they hit. I made out juveniles crawling on their knees to 
play with smaller ones, mothers worrying over babies slipping 
back from the mud into the water, banded mongooses picking 
insects from dung piles — all the things to which I had become 
accustomed among the giants. The wind turned. An elderly fe- 
male wheeled toward me and blared. Dozens of trunks peri- 
scoped my way. A younger cow began to trot in my direction 
with creased ears and an upraised trunk. I didn’t think she’d seen 
me yet, but I was looking for an escape path when the whole 
group — some 3 million pounds of beast — suddenly wheeled, 
tore apart the water with plunging feet, and went screaming 
away into the distance. All because of one 1 8o-pound man who 
would have backed off from a single ratel. 

One ashamed and angry man, left to return to his doomsday 
safari among vultures massed in acacia trees, the droning fly 
swarms, the foul miasma of dissolving flesh. Damn it. So much 
death among animals with such a keen sense of things that they 
were even known to cover over the dead of other species. The 
poachers had robbed Tsavo, robbed tourists, and now robbed 
me of any chance to be near elephants without adding to their 
stress and misery. 

I was still in a dark mood when I visited Simon Trevor’s house 
and learned that his daughter and a friend were missing. They 
had gone out to film wildlife and failed to return at the appointed 
time No one wanted to raise false alarms, but several more 
freshly killed elephants had turned up fairly close by the day be- 
fore. The proximity of poachers was on everyone’s mind, all the 
more so since the tourists had been shot. We were fairly sure that 
the women were merely mired in the mud somewhere, but they 
were getting more and more overdue. Worse, they had failed to 
tell anyone exactly where they were going. Joe Kioko returned 
from an airplane patrol for poachers, learned of the problem, 
rubbed his eyes, and took off again to look for the women’s car. 
lain, Oria, and Simon did the same in the Douglas-Hamiltons’ 
plane. The women were found, stuck in the mud as we were al- 



n6 The Fate of the Elephant 


most sure they would be. We made nervous jokes about the 
whole affair and split up to go our separate ways. 

I went to see the hippos and crocs that share the crystalline 
waters of Mzima Springs the following day. My route took me 
by the road leading out of Tsavo toward Amboseli. From a hill- 
side, I could make out the stretch of road where the tour van had 
been ambushed and the ropy lava flows the Douglas-Hamiltons 
and I had flown over that first day. The volcanic terrain had 
looked so beautifully chaotic and intriguing from the air, I was 
tempted to go hike around it. But 1 lingered where 1 was, my 
attention focused on a nearby trio of giraffes among flowering 
Bauhinia. A van came speeding up the road from the direction 
of the volcanic hills and screeched to a stop beside me. Several 
passengers started shouting to me at once: “Robbers, back 
there. . . . Turn around! . . . People hurt. . . . shooting.” 

1 waited a while, wandered off on another road, and then 
went on to the Kiligoni Lodge nearby. It presented the usual 
scene: enormous buffets spread before ample tourists in brafid- 
new safari uniforms, with black waiters in starched, white uni- 
forms hustling back and forth past walls hung with Masai 
shields and crossed spears. But in i room off the side of the main 
lodge I found David Kariuki Nyoike, the driver of one of the 
two vans of German tourists that had been attacked. He lay with 
a bloody leg propped up on a pillow and breathed through 
clenched teeth. He was clear-headed, though, and able to de- 
scribe the assailants: “Two Somalis — shifta, young, with G-3S.” 
Sold by Germany, used on German tourists, 1 couldn’t help 
thinking. “No, just one had a gun. The other ... I think an axe. 
Maybe a panga [machete]. They fired when I tried to back up. 
The tires were blown . . . car rolled. They ran up demanding 
money. Young guys. They were nervous. I handed it over. ‘No! 
No!’ they say. ‘No Kenya shillings! Dollars!’ ” 

A second van arrived at the scene as the tourists in the first van 
were still handing over their money. More shifta appeared. They 
ran for the vehicle and shot it up as it tried to back away. From 
David’s description, the entire ambush was virtually a repeat of 
the one the week before and in almost precisely the same spot. 



East Africa: Tsavo 117 

Three tourists were hurt this time, none seriously. I helped one 
of them out the door and toward a car that would carry him to 
an incoming plane at the airstrip. He was wounded in the leg by 
a bullet and metal shards from the van. At one point, he stum- 
bled and drew a sharp breath. 

"You okay?” I asked. 

‘Til live,” he grunted. Not long after I left Kenya, bandits 
shot up yet another van full of German tourists in Tsavo, and 
that time they killed some. 

Back at the Kiligoni Lodge, tourists were wandering between 
overflowing buffet offerings and the bar, some of them grum- 
bling about the lack of protection by rangers. These people were 
paying up to U.S. $200 a night to stay here; one lodge in Masai 
Mara charged more than $400 a night. The average ranger was 
being paid $80 a month to protect them. No extra pay for high- 
risk duty, nor hardship pay for being camped in the held for long 
stretches away from his family. He had no decent boots for pa- 
trolling, no mosquito netting to protect him when he slept, no 
antimalarial drugs available when he fell ill. As at Amboseli, he 
was short on transportation due to lack of park funds for spare 
parts, and his weapon was likely to be a vintage single-shot rifle 
with the rifling blown out. Some rangers poured in new metal 
to make a truer bore, but in so doing, they reduced the caliber to 
little more than a .22, good for something the size of, say, a rat. 

I knew this because all the personnel I talked with complained 
of the same shortages. I heard it from both ordinary rangers and 
some of the APUs. What of the GSUs, I asked — surely these 
quasimilitary units were well supplied? They were, and it made 
the others jealous. That might explain why many spoke so dis- 
paragingly of the GSUs’ abilities. The GSU guys might be good 
in a firefight, but these were men from the army and police, used 
to being stationed in towns and cities. They were poor help in 
the bush when it came to tracking and outguessing the shifta. 
And it seemed that when the poachers struck, the GSU guys 
were always back at their big camps, drilling, eating their ra- 
tions, and cleaning their guns. 

Once again, I returned from the field to Nairobi to find 



lift The Fate op the Elephant 


elephants in the news and dominating the affairs of the conser- 
vation community there. These groups covered the whole spec- 
trum, from local to international, from radical to bureaucratic 
and bland. Their members ranged from those often labeled 
bleeding hearts or humane-iacs to those who promoted safari 
hunting and game ranching. The level of bickering, infighting, 
and competition for funds and influence with the government in 
the capital city was already rather intense when a proposal came 
along that made the philosophical Great Rift seem wider and 
deeper than it had ever been during the controversy over culling 
in Tsavo. 

The proposal was to change the official status of the African 
elephant as determined by CITES, from threatened to endan- 
gered. Keeping the elephant in the threatened category (Appen- 
dix II of the Endangered Species List) meant a continuation of 
existing approaches, such as trade restrictions, intended to help 
the species. The methods might be expanded and intensified but 
not overhauled. This amounted to agreeing that the elephants’ 
situation was not yet so dire as to call for drastic measures. A 
shift to endangered status (Appendix I) meant an outright 
worldwide ban on trade in ivory/ along with any and all other 
products derived from elephants at the cost of their fives. It 
amounted to an admission that existing approaches had failed 
and the elephants’ prospects of survival had slipped to a danger- 
ously low point. Appendix I or Appendix II; you were either on 
one side of the Rift or the other. 

Worldwide, the Appendix II camp was led by Zimbabwe and 
South Africa, with support from Botswana. All three countries 
had stable or increasing elephant populations. This southern Af- 
rican contingent believed strongly in using trophy hunting of el- 
ephants and culling as management tools and claimed that an 
Appendix I fisting would deprive their wildlife programs of cru- 
cial funds raised through the sale of legally taken ivory tusks. 
Their allies were a handful of other nations, such as China and 
the Republic of Congo, which had a stake in the ivory trade, and 
of course the ivory dealers themselves, particularly the consor- 
tiums from Hong Kong and Japan. One of their strongest ar- 



East Africa: Tsavo 119 

guments was that declaring the elephant endangered would 
make ivory more valuable and accelerate the rate of poaching as 
had happened with rhinoceroses and their horns. 

In the other camp, favoring an Appendix I listing, was per- 
haps the bulk of world opinion, shaped by the news reports 
streaming out of Africa about the wholesale slaughter of ele- 
phants for their tusks. However, most nations, including opin- 
ion leaders and major ivory consumers such as the United States 
and members of the European Economic Community, had yet 
to take an official position. For that matter, the biggest and, ar- 
guably, most influential conservation group, the World Wildlife 
Fund, was now wavering after having first supported keeping 
the elephant on Appendix II. Campaigns to win the minds and 
hearts of the undecided made the furor over elephants within the 
conservation community all the louder and, at times, embar- 
rassingly mean-spirited. 

Continent-wide, the giants were being depleted at a rate of 
more than 10 percent annually. East Africa was losing its ele- 
phants at a rate of 14.2 percent per year. West Africa, which once 
hosted at least a million elephants, was now left with only iso- 
lated groups numbering, at most, 19,000 and declining at the 
rate of 17.8 percent a year. There was not much nature left be- 
tween the few little nature reserves, not much “out there” left 
out there anymore. As a prime example, the Ivory Coast (Cote 
d’Ivoire) had so few elephants of its own left that the president 
was reportedly going to have to buy some from outside sources 
to stock a presidential hunting reserve. The country named for 
ivory still had some ivory for sale in its markets, but it consisted 
primarily of illegal tusks brought in from neighboring nations. 
Officially, the Ivory Coast claimed to have some 3000 elephants. 
In reality, it had more like a few hundred. The average popula- 
tion size of the scattered groups was less than 50, which put it 
more or less in the same category as Guinea Bissau, Mauritania, 
Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. 

Statistics like these plainly show a species on a toboggan ride 
toward absolute zero. Drastic measures certainly seemed in or- 
der. A newcomer to the controversy might be puzzled as to why 



tao Thb Fate of the Elephant 


a proposal to list the elephant as endangered should be contro- 
versial among conservationists. I was puzzled as well. The ex- 
planation goes back almost three decades to the days when Iain 
and Oria Douglas-Hamilton began publicly warning of rapid 
declines in elephant populations. From the start, they were 
branded as alarmists — not only by bureaucrats with a congenital 
dislike of boat-rockers but by a number of colleagues in the sci- 
entific world who felt that the Douglas-Hamiltons lacked suffi- 
cient information. 

The compilation of hard data about the largest of land mam- 
mals was indeed slim. Whole sections of the continent remained 
blank spots when it came to the number and distribution of el- 
ephants. This was due to the difficulty of travel within those 
areas and to economic and political instability. Which is a neutral 
way of saying that there were a lot of places where it was a 
nightmare trying to get around, almost nothing worked, and the 
last thing anyone bothered with was keeping track of elephants. 
The criticism concerning lack of information was therefore 
valid. Yet it was not exactly fair, since such information as was 
available — spotty studies, second-hand reports, and rumors — 
nearly always suggested that elephants were in serious trouble. 

In any case, Iain and Oria took on the challenge of trying to 
survey Africa’s elephants and encourage additional surveys and 
studies by others. As more numbers came in, they seemed to 
confirm fears of a rapid decline in the species. Nevertheless, 
some individuals took every opportunity to find fault with the 
data and cast the results in a more positive light. Personal differ- 
ences had begun to get in the way, as they often do. For one 
thing, a certain amount of jealousy was generated by the 
Douglas-Hamiltons’ popular writing and growing reputation as 
the elephant people. In addition, it was not too difficult to por- 
tray Iain as an outsider to the wildlife management establish- 
ment. Here was a wild, long-haired Englishman who Hew 
airplanes like a stunt man and his gorgeous free spirit of a wife, 
who took their children out to greet wild elephants hand to 
trunk tip. In their writings, they portrayed elephants as individ- 
ual personalities, and it was from the Douglas-Hamiltons that 



East Africa: Tsavo 121 


the press had picked up and sensationalized the phenomenon of 
elephants sometimes mourning and burying their dead — linger- 
ing by deceased family members and covering them with 
branches and debris. Could you trust these subjective observ- 
ers — these flakes! — to dictate future management policies for the 
beasts? 

A number of the Douglas-Hamiltons’ opponents saw a “save 
the elephants” campaign as part of an unwarranted trend toward 
total protection of wildlife in reserves. When Kenya and Tan- 
zania banned all big-game hunting, beginning in the late 1960s, 
some supporters of traditional game management and safari 
shooting never quite got over it. Many of them genuinely felt 
that the money, meat, hides, and other products generated by 
cropping wild animals provided a more reliable incentive for Af- 
ricans to protect their wildlife resources. For others, it was more 
a case of feeling personally threatened. People hesitate to speak 
of this openly because the hunting /antihunting controversy is 
universally such a bitter, emotionally charged disagreement. 
Nevertheless, the elephant issue in good part came down to the 
new sensitivity against the old sporting ethic. 

Publicly, the arguments were mostly about technical and sci- 
entific matters, but the forces driving those squabbles often 
sprang from intense private feelings and deeply held beliefs — in 
other words, from things about which a professor I knew used 
to say, “You’re wasting your time trying to argue them out of 
people’s heads through logical discussion, because they didn’t 
get in that way.” 

Elephants are magnificent beings worthy of being accorded 
many of the rights we extend to our fellow humans; I cannot put 
into words the thrill and sense of meaning I experience in the 
company of these intelligent, expressive beasts. No. Elephants 
are magnificent prey; I cannot express the thrill and sense of 
meaning I experience in the chase and the shooting and the 
whole camaraderie of a hunting camp. Or, make that: the sense 
of empowerment given me by actively managing wildlife for 
the use of people. Elephant as friend; elephant as worthy adver- 
sary. Elephant as fellow being; elephant as harves table commod- 



122 The Fate op the Elephant 


ity. Human as seeker of animal companionship; human as 
controller of animal destiny. These may not be easy things to 
discuss, but they are worth every effort, because they are at the 
heart of our relationship with nature. 


From desert sands to lush rainforests and lowland swamps to 
subalpine meadows, elephants occupied a broader assortment of 
habitats than almost any other large mammal on the African 
continent besides humans not long ago. People on the island of 
Lamu, more than a mile off the coast of Kenya, used to orna- 
ment their doors with spikes. Although the big, metal thorns 
probably symbolized resistance to invaders in general, I was told 
that they were to keep elephants from hammering down the 
door. Elephants were once common on the island and some- 
times could be seen snorkeling across the open sea between 
Lamu and the mainland, where herds use to range through the 
humid forests along the coast. At the same time, elephant car- 
casses have been found 16,000 feet high on Mount Kenya, just 
below the glaciers. On an earlieirvisit, I had seen where groups 
crossing between valleys had munched on giant groundsel along 
talus slopes at 14,000 feet. 

After the hot plains of Tsavo, I had an urge to see elephants in 
the mountains once more. My Erst choice was Meru National 
Park. However, poachers had harassed tourists so badly there — 
robbing many and killing a couple — that the lodges had closed 
and the park was all but shut down. Its main occupants other 
than poachers were now illegal livestock grazers. Similar prob- 
lems, combined with political pressure from overcrowded sub- 
sistence farmers and grazers, had led Kenya to degazette — 
unmake — another park farther north. 

1 settled on Mount Elgon National Park instead. I had read of 
its caves, where generations of elephants had gone to tusk away 
salty, mineral-rich earth from the walls, steadily making the cav- 
erns ever deeper and wider. Their activities had been studied by 
Ian Redmond, who was among the first to propose listing the 



East Africa: Tsavo iaj 

African elephant on Appendix I of the Endangered Species List. 
Redmond had documented a sharp decline in the number of el- 
ephants using the caves in recent years, and I wanted to see this 
rare phenomenon while it still existed. 

Like Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Elgon is 
a towering, isolated volcano; one of a series of such cones 
formed along the edge of the Great Rift Valley by the hot, sub- 
terranean forces pushing the earth’s crust apart here. And like the 
parks on Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Elgon 
National Park takes in only the upper elevations of the peak. In 
fact, it includes only the high slopes on the Kenyan side; the east- 
ern half of the mountain and its outlying ridges lie in Uganda. 
The lower half of the volcano has been transformed from rain- 
forest to cropland, and new fields march ever farther up the 
slopes every year. Some of the woodlands that remain at higher 
altitudes are part of a forest reserve, but selective logging, graz- 
ing, and cultivation are permitted within these lands. Only the 
least productive life zones — bamboo, heath, subalpine, and al- 
pine — with the lowest diversity of species are fully protected as 
a national park. 

At least these park habitats are scenic — spectacularly so. After 
checking on the caves, I planned to explore the high country. 
Cautiously. Poachers, mostly from Uganda, had been robbing 
trekkers. Sometimes the thieves would be satisfied with taking 
your lunch, just as they raided the farms here for food. The 
Ugandans were hungry. They had shot out most of the game on 
their side of the mountain and now came here to shoot meat. 
They had already taken most of the elephants on both sides for 
ivory. 

Because poachers were so prevalent, 1 was not permitted to 
travel alone. I set out in the company of two rangers, Hassan Idle 
and Fidelis Mwoki, along a winding dirt track to the caves. Fi- 
delis told me that in earlier years it was hard to get anywhere 
along these roads; so many elephants used them as convenient 
routes across the steep-sided terrain that they often blocked the 
way. I saw only one old dropping on the road. Nor did we turn 
up fresh sign along the hiking trail to the caves. What we found 



124 The Fate op the Elephant 

were dozens of spent rifle cartridges. Once at the caves, we 
heard bats chirruping in the darkness and located the tracks of 
one small female elephant and a subadult on the dusty cavern 
floor, where scores of the animals used to walk. That was it. 

It was early morning of the next day when we drove up a dif- 
ferent road toward the subalpine zone to begin our hike. Part 
way there, we noticed smoke rising from a valley. At first we 
thought the fire might have been set by slash-and-burn cultiva- 
tors or was coming from honey-gatherers smoking out bee 
hives. But as we drew nearer, we saw that it was a wildfire burn- 
ing above the forest zone in the heath. Poachers had set it, Has- 
san said. 

“To drive game?” I asked. 

“No, to keep us busy. A distraction. They know we have only 
one or two vehicles that run and not many men. If we go out to 
fight the fire, who will be left to bother them? They can hunt as 
they wish.” 

When we reached the fire, it was midmorning. Many qf the 
bushes that formed the heath contain volatile oils, and the sun 
had nearly dried the last branches of dew. The flames were be- 
ginning to race through them. We used green branches to beat 
down fingers of the blaze, trying to keep them from creeping 
upslope, but our efforts were useless. It would take a brigade to 
put out this fire, and there was no brigade. We could only hope 
it would burn itself out on the ridges. Shots echoed lower on the 
slopes. Shots had been reported to the rangers the day before. Fi- 
delis and Hassan shook their heads, and we went on to start hik- 
ing. The charred residue of poachers’ campfires rested here and 
there among the rocks. Hassan pointed out that eyes might well 
be watching us cross the open highlands. I scanned the outcrops 
with my binoculars but eventually gave it up. Deciding that I 
wasn't going to let the outlaws ruin this place for me too, I 
turned my attention to the remarkable adaptations of the life 
forms around me. 

Giant lobelias stood out like shaggy pillars among the grasses, 
and I swung my binoculars from one to the next, searching for 
a certain species of bird. Besides being beautiful, it bears one of 



East Africa: Tsavo iaj 

my favorite names for things in this world: the scarlet-breasted 
malachite sunbird. I had found two of my other favorites — the 
joyful bulbul, a thrushlike eater of fruit, and its close relative, the 
yellow-throated leaflove — in a remnant of Kenya’s lowland for- 
est. I watched sunbirds, found a chameleon with jewellike green 
coloring tucked between a lobelia’s hairy, insulating leaves, 
hiked some ridges, and circled back to the car in the afternoon. 

Driving down the track, we had to race to escape a wall of 
flames burning up the mountainside toward us. As we came 
around a blind corner at high speed, we practically slammed into 
a Toyota Land Cruiser stalled in the middle of the road. Its ra- 
diator had boiled over, and some of the electrical wiring had 
shorted out. Rangers in uniform stood around it. One poured in 
water and another frantically scraped wires while others fought 
flames at the side of the road. We got the engine going and 
gunned both vehicles downslope, then stopped and introduced 
ourselves. The man in charge of these rangers and the beat-up, 
balky car was Ram Munge, the number-two man in charge of 
the nation’s APU forces. He had come from Nairobi on an in- 
spection tour. He described the battle against poaching the same 
way 1 would describe his means of transport: it might work, but 
you couldn’t trust that it would; there wasn’t enough money at 
hand to ever really get the thing fixed right. 


The day I arrived at Mount Elgon National Park, I had presented 
my letter of introduction from the park service director, Perea 
Olindo, to the ranger sitting in the shade at the gate house. He 
smiled and said, "But Mr. Olindo is no longer the director, as of 
this morning. Did you know this?’’ 

The new director was Richard Leakey, who until recently had 
served as the head of Kenya’s National Museum. A paleontol- 
ogist widely acclaimed for his work on the origins of humans, 
he had continued the pattern of discovery begun by his parents, 
Louis and Mary Leakey, at Olduvai Gorge. Richard Leakey had 
been highly critical of the Kenya antipoaching campaign and 



1*6 Thb Fate of the Elephant 


ridiculed official claims that the country still held large numbers 
of elephants. Correctly pointing out that the true number was 
barely 16,000, he claimed that responsibility for the debacle lay 
directly with corrupt individuals at high levels of government. 
Yes, it would be nice to have more money to fight the poachers, 
he agreed, but where had earlier funds gone? How could so 
many people be accomplishing so little unless those in charge 
had something to gain on the side from the failure to stem the 
tide of ivory poaching? 

For such comments, he was labeled “cheeky Leakey” by 
the minister of tourism, who oversaw the parks department. 
Cheeky Leakey was very nearly expelled from the country. And 
now, abruptly, he was being invited by President Moi to run the 
parks department and solve its problems — problems such as the 
shooting of tourists in Tsavo. It seemed the back-to-back inci- 
dents that took place while I was there really had “put the fat in 
the fire,” as Iain had phrased it. A few more shoot-ups like that, 
and tourists by the plane-full were going to drop Kenya ffbm 
their itineraries. The backbone of the country’s economy was at 
stake. Leakey was being given a directive to clean house and, in 
effect, bring back the heads of poachers to show the world. 

With Leakey’s appointment, the ivory war in Kenya appeared 
to have taken a turn for the better. But poaching was only one 
threat to the survival of elephants here. It could be dealt with far 
more handily than the more ominous one awaiting the giants — 
the one seldom mentioned in all the news coverage of the crisis 
or any of the “save the elephants” pleas issued by conservation 
groups. That threat is the multiplication of humans. 

Elephant populations had already been displaced and frag- 
mented by the burgeoning populace of Kenya. Most of the ex- 
isting parks and reserves were no longer connected by habitats 
the animals could use. If those preserves were to be fenced, as the 
president’s plans called for, the isolation of herds would become 
truly unavoidable. Then inbreeding, genetic drift, and vulnera- 
bility to random disasters such as fires, floods, disease epidem- 
ics, and so on would become problems. Meanwhile, a problem 
of far greater magnitude would continue building outside the 
fence. 



East Afsica: Tsavo 137 

The average woman in Kenya bears six or seven children in 
her lifetime. The population is increasing at 4.2 percent an- 
nually — twice the average for the developing world and eight 
times that of the developed world. At the start of 1970, Kenya 
had just over 1 1 million people. It now has 2$ million, of which 
three-quarters are under thirty years of age. By 2025 the total 
could be nearly 80 million. 

More than 75 percent of Kenya’s land is too dry to support 
crops. Of the remaining 25 percent, less than a quarter is very 
productive, and that figure is going to be very difficult to in- 
crease, again for want of water. By 2025, when the current pop- 
ulation of Kenyans has tripled, who will oppose converting 
Masai land from open range to wheat farms? Who will oppose 
degazetting more parklands with precious timber, water, and 
good soils? Political pressures to use every available resource will 
become a juggernaut. There has been considerable agitation 
lately to oust the Moi government. Will a government trying to 
satisfy the needs of a populace three times as large and farther out 
of balance with its support system be more stable? A sanctuary 
filled with natural bounty surrounded by a crush of people in 
need is not a recipe for long-term survival of any wild plant or 
animal. It might last years, decades, maybe even a century. 
Then, in a few weeks of political upheaval, it will be gone. 

Kenya was one of those places where people would ask how 
many children I had and shake their heads and cluck sadly when 
I told them I had two. They were sorry for me that I had failed 
to do better. The terms population explosion and population bomb 
are more than figurative in this nation. Children beyond count- 
ing careen in all directions along the street, through the villages, 
among the fields. Clouds of smoke and dust rise from towns and 
cities teeming with people forced out of traditional homelands 
for want of living room. Their families’ fields have been divided 
and divided again among the children until nothing was left for 
the next generation. Nairobi is gaining a sprawl of slums to 
match those of Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City. In the end, it 
isn't just wildlife that is being displaced by unchecked human 
multiplication. 

The average Somali poacher in Tkavo or Ugandan poacher in 



>*•' Thb Fate op thb Elephant 

Mount Elgon is not a goon or thug by nature. He is a young 
man — perhaps more ambitious than most — with few prospects 
back home on the overcrowded, overused lands of his forefa- 
thers. How I wished I could believe that they were the bad guys 
and that once the good guys finally thrashed them, the elephants' 
future would once again look bright. Instead, I was beginning 
to glimpse the potential catastrophe awaiting all efforts to secure 
wildlife preserves. In the absence of equally forceful efforts by 
governments to encourage family planning, the odds are over- 
whelming that every conservation plan, every meeting, every 
dollar contributed, every scientist’s years of careful observa- 
tions, and every ranger’s life lost in a fight against poachers will 
one day prove to have been for naught. 

15151SS151915151S1515151515' 

1 forgot to mention the one elephant group I was able to stay 
close to in Tsavo. I had returned from a drive to check on some 
carcasses not far from Voi when I saw a huge, red female in plain 
view not far from the airstrip. She showed no signs of nervous- 
ness. She scarcely paid attention to any of the human activity 
nearby. Ah, I remembered: Eleanor. Orphaned in Tsavo at an 
early age, she. had been raised by the chief warden at the time, 
David Sheldrick, and his wife, Daphne. Since then, David 
Sheldrick had passed away, and Daphne was living near Nairobi 
at the edge of Nairobi National Park, where she operated a 
wild animal orphanage. Most of her wards were very young 
elephants. 

After years of frustration and failure, Daphne had finally de- 
veloped a system that would keep nursing orphaned infants 
alive. The first trick had been to come up with a formula that 
provided enough nourishment without causing diarrhea. She 
had also learned that the babies needed to be fed every few hours, 
both night and day. To give them the companionship they 
craved almost as strongly, she kept a sheep that would tag along 
with the newest arrivals. She also had a staff of nine or ten men 
that kept an eye on the elephants by day, washed them, gave 



East Africa: Tsavo 129 

them mud baths, held their bottles (while standing behind a tarp 
that loomed over a youngster like the grey side of a grown fe- 
male), and slept in a shed with them at night. Almost all the 
youngsters were survivors of poaching. They came in suffering 
from dehydration and, having no adult to shade them, serious 
sunburn. And psychological trauma. They had watched their 
families slaughtered, seen men axe or chain-saw the tusks from 
their relatives' faces. Sometimes they woke up screaming from 
their dreams at night. Daphne said. 

Daphne Sheldrick is a mush-heart and makes no apologies for 
it. She cooed and baby-talked constantly to the tiny elephants 
racing around her yard and, like any number of people given to 
talking to their pets, she told me she is sure they understand 
everything she says. I am sure they do not, though I believe they 
understand and thrive on the warmth and good intentions sent 
their way. At the orphanage, I had noticed one baby that was 
missing the lower part of its trunk. Caught in a snare, I assumed. 
Daphne shook her head and explained that the baby had made 
the mistake of greeting a fellow orphan, a young rhinoceros 
named Amboseli, by placing its trunk in the rhino's mouth. 
Amboseli, not known for his social skills, bit the trunk off. 

Once the elephants were weaned from the bottle, the next step 
was to let them begin exploring parts of Nairobi National Park 
under the supervision of her staff so they would become familiar 
with the scents and sounds of the bush. Sometime after the age 
of three, they would be loaded into a truck and taken south to 
Tsavo to be released into the care of Eleanor, who would be ac- 
companied by some of her earlier charges plus three men who 
walked with them through the bush around Voi all day. Each 
evening, of her own accord, Eleanor led the way back to a com- 
pound where she and her adopted family could rest safely during 
the night. 

Eleanor was thirty years old by the time we met and had 
served as foster mother for quite a few orphans. Not all of them 
came to her in fine fettle from Daphne’s Nairobi operation. 
Some were brought in straight fronj the bush, and Eleanor had 
seen enough of these die that she grew edgy each time even die 



*JQ Thb Fate of thb Elephant 

healthiest youngster lay down still on the ground to rest. When 
Chuma, a baby in her care, rolled in the mud at a pool, Eleanor 
thundered over to pull it away from the water, loo many weak 
ones had been unable to climb out of mudholes by themselves. 

Job Mbindyo, one of Eleanor’s keepers at Tsavo, said, “Last 
month, a baby is stuck in a mudhole, and we are trying to pull 
it out. She comes to help us. Eleanor digs with a tusk, pushes 
with her leg. She helps us very much. When we meet a lion, 
right away Eleanor runs to us to be sure we are with the babies. 
Then she runs back at the lions to chase them away. If a baby 
dies, she stays with it a long time until she is sure it is dead. The 
next day, she is running a lot, pulling down things, breaking 
things, even long after we take the baby away.” 

Eventually, the young animals reared with Eleanor mature 
and go off into the wilds of Tsavo and an uncertain fate. At least 
they have been given a chance. On two or three different occa- 
sions, Eleanor herself went off, following wild elephants. But 
she always returned and resumed her duties as stand-in mother. 
Job explained as I stood at Eleanor’s side. She had extralong 
lashes and very mild eyes, and I felt instantly secure in her pres- 
ence. I would have liked her for an adopted mother. “She thinks 
the way people do,” he said. “She is happy to be around people. 
If she sees or she hears someone she has not seen in a long time 
and it is someone she knows very well, she lifts her front leg in 
greeting and makes a lot of water from the places on the side of 
her head.” Tourists regularly come up to spend time near her. 
Although she treats most with equanimity, she has been known 
to grab the wrist of people wearing an ivory bracelet and hold it 
fast in her grip for a while before finally letting go. 

The work of Daphne Sheldrick could be interpreted as an ex- 
travagance. It was not cheap to have ten men bottle-feeding baby 
elephants in Nairobi and three more walking around all day with 
Eleanor and her orphan gang. What was the point of spending 
so much effort and money to salvage a handful of orphans with 
poaching so rampant? With human beings in this country g oing 
hungry and in need of care for their babies? 

Daphne had heard such comments more than a few times. She 



Bast Afbica: Tsavo iji 

would answer by pointing out that the work is supported in 
good part by donations from some 30,000 visitors who troop 
through the orphanage every year. “Quite a lot are Kenyan 
schoolchildren and city people from here in Nairobi,” she told 
me. “As you might expea, they may believe all kinds of non- 
sense about ferocious wild animals. These are the first elephants 
or rhinos many of them have ever seen. My babies are ambas- 
sadors for their kind. People go away thinking differently about 
elephants and their problems. Anyway, there are five young el- 
ephants now with Eleanor, and that is five more elephants than 
would otherwise be alive in Tsavo today.” 

Perhaps this project didn't make much sense when weighed 
against the problems of corruption, habitat loss, poaching, and 
overpopulation. Yet I found it all the more worthwhile because 
it was not particularly logical. It was a direct expression of some- 
one caring for a creature, and caring unabashedly in the face of 
gloomy realities. I was very glad to have met Eleanor. Her pres- 
ence said: Look, this too — this good and kind thing — is some- 
thing humans can do to elephants. Just now, Tsavo needed a 
gesture like that. So did I. 



FIVE 


Central Africa: 
Bangui 


15151515* In the very heart of Africa, where the southern 
tip of the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) projects like a 
spearhead between Cameroon, Zaire, and the Republic of 
Congo, an ecologist named Mike Fay from the Missouri Botan- 
ical Gardens was making his way up tributaries of the Congo 
River toward his remote jungle camp. Photographer Bill 
Thompson and I were going to look for him there. 

I had done this sort of thing once before in the jungles of the 
Amazon Basin, searching for an ethnobiologist who was study- 
ing the cultural uses of insects among Kayapo Indians some- 
where up a tributary of the Xingu River. “Find the house of the 
chief and talk to him first,” the Brazilian pilot had shouted over 
the noise of his engine after depositing me on a raw landing strip 
cut from the forest canopy. 

“Okay. Why?” 

The pilot yelled something in a mixture of Portuguese and 
English. Something about the Kayapo being at war with nearby 
white gold miners and diamond hunters. Something like “The 
chief is the one who must decide whether to let you live or not.” 

“But 1 don’t speak Kayapo. You know I don’t even speak Por- 
tuguese. How am I . . . You’re joking, right?” 

The pilot waved as he roared off into the steam clouds form- 
ing over the rainforest canopy. 

Now I was trying — in French — to arrange transportation in 
Bangui, the steaming capital of the C. A.R., where the locals call 



Cbntral Africa: Bangui 133 

white people moonjus, a corruption of monsieur plus bonjour. The 
nation is roughly the size of Texas, with a population of less than 
3 million. Infant mortality runs between 16 and 25 percent. 
AIDS is ubiquitous, as in Kenya, where I had just been. And, as 
in Kenya, elephants are prominent symbols on the country’s cur- 
rency, and the logo of the most popular brand of beer is a big 
bull tusker. 

For centuries, the most valued commodities were gold, dia- 
monds, slaves, and ivory. They were not so much exported by 
the region as looted from it, by Arabs and then by European co- 
lonialists. The C.A.R. now exports cotton and coffee, though 
coffee prices have fallen so low that many plantations have been 
abandoned. At the time of my visit, the true staple commodities 
remained gold, diamonds, and ivory, still traveling largely 
through channels older than the law. Elephant hunting was il- 
legal and had been for a number of years. Technically, the only 
ivory that could be bought and sold in the C.A.R. was tusks 
taken as a result of official control actions such as killing crop- 
raiding animals. 

As in neighboring Zaire, where elephant hunting for ivory 
was banned in 1977, there seemed to be a terrible crop-raiding 
problem, even in places where no crops grew. A recent inven- 
tory in Zaire had turned up 1 joo tons of ivory, which meant a 
minimum of 65,000 dead elephants. In the C.A.R., a 1986 in- 
ventory of thousands of tusks turned up not one from an animal 
more than 35 years of age. Odd. Older, experienced elephants 
generally tend to be the worst crop-raiders; they should have 
been well represented in the inventory. Clearly, there were pre- 
cious few elephants beyond middle age left in the entire country. 
They had been taken for their long ivory, and the ever-younger 
ones being shot since had little or nothing to do with filching 
crops either. 

Much of the eastern C.A.R. is still depopulated from slaving, 
which sent captives along routes north to Chad and Sudan. You 
can still see the rock shelters and water catchments in the moun- 
tains of the east where people being stalked took refuge. Slavery 
officially ended in 1913, when the French killed the last major 



t34 The Fats of thb Elephant 

Arab trader at his fortress, but it continued for a while after that 
on a smaller scale. Today, a number of residents toil as virtual in- 
dentured servants for Chadian Muslims, who form a powerful 
business network in the C. A.R. The workers are paid a monthly 
pittance and prevented from leaving by threat of physical harm. 
During my visit, 1 also noticed that in neighboring Cameroon, 
you could still buy young girls from a ring of military thugs — 
and not just for the night but as chattel for life. 


Day and night, the atmosphere lay over Bangui like a hot com- 
press. Fishermen in long dugout canoes eased through the 
broad, brown waters of the Ubangui River flowing between the 
capital and the shores of Zaire. I suddenly realized. that I had 
heard the name before: Ubangui. Ubangee. When I was a child, 
my friends and I used to talk about the Ubangees. To us, they 
were Negroes in grass skirts whose hair was tied up in a topknot 
with a bone stuck through it. They pranced around a big, boil- 
ing kettle, looking hungrily at the missionaries and explorers 
bound to a stake nearby. I couldn’t remember whether we got 
this classic bit of cultural prejudice from television cartoons or 
comic books. I was embarrassed to be carrying around that kind 
of mental luggage on my first trip into the core of Africa. 

On the other hand, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a recent leader of the 
C. A.R., was an enthusiastic cannibal. He was so fond of human 
flesh that he served it at his mansion’s table to unsuspecting dig- 
nitaries. At least, that was the local rumor. 

“Did he really do that — mange beaucoup de gens?” I asked one 
of the locals. 

“Owi, but Mr. Bokassa ate mostly people from the [some 
name I could not make out] tribe, and Mr. Bokassa’s tribe has 
always eaten them,” he shrugged. “They are said to be good to 
eat.” 

Africa and Its Exploration, published a century ago, contains a 
chapter by Sir Richard Burton entitled “Among the Fan Canni- 
bals and the Gorillas,” describing his travels north of the Congo 



Central Africa: Bangui ijj 


River in Gabon. “Anthropophagy,'* he wrote, “either as a ne- 
cessity, a sentiment, or a superstition, is known to sundry, 
though by no means to all, the tribes dwelling between the Nun 
[Niger] and the Congo rivers ..." For the Fan, cannibalism 
was engaged in only by warriors as “a quasireligious rite, prac- 
tised upon foes slain in battle, evidently an equivalent of human 
sacrifice." 

Having come to power in a military coup in 1966, Bokassa, a 
great fan of Napoleon I, proclaimed himself emperor in 1977. 
He somehow managed to spend $25 million on his coronation, 
a remarkable achievement in a country with rudimentary gov- 
ernment services and a load of foreign debt. Not surprisingly, 
one of the major sources of foreign revenue under the Bokassa 
regime was poached ivory. Emperor Bokassa went on to in- 
volve himself directly in the torture and massacre of some hun- 
dred schoolchildren. 

This was too much for the French, who had officially granted 
the C.A.R. independence in i960 but have maintained consid- 
erable behind-the-scenes influence in the military and business 
spheres ever since. They quickly whipped up a coup to depose 
the man, even though he had thoughtfully been sending secret 
gifts of diamonds to the president of France for some time. Bo- 
kassa was exiled to the Ivory Coast. Several years later, he re- 
turned to the C.A.R. in the belief that his country people would 
embrace him as their rightful leader. He was placed under house 
arrest and was still there, up on a hill overlooking Bangui, dur- 
ing my visit. 


Bill Thompson, who arrived after I did, was nearly arrested for 
entering the country without a visa. When he exited Paris after 
a stopover, a customs official had mistaken his C.A.R. visa 
sticker for the identical-looking French sticker and stamped it 
canceled. Thompson emerged from customs at the Bangui air- 
port after a couple of hours and several hundred dollars in 
“fines" that would never be recorcied, only to be swamped by 



1)6 Thb Fate of the Elephant 

the inevitable gang of porters who grabbed his bags from his 
hands, threw them in a taxi, and then circled him screaming 
threats about not getting paid enough, hoping that he was not 
yet familiar with the C.A.R. wage scale or the exchange rate 
from U.S. dollars to C.A.R. francs. That scene over, he began 
making the rounds to get his visa restored, which meant hours 
and days in the particular level of hell that awaits wayfarers in 
any number of equatorial countries. . . . 

It is a dark, stifling, hot little room in a balding of moldy 
concrete and peeling paint, where an official sits hunched over an 
antique typewriter squinting at forms that neither he nor the for- 
eigners required to fill them out fully understand. Around him, 
watching geckoes run down spiders on the walls or simply star- 
ing with an expression beyond despair, sit the would-be travel- 
ers. Many have already been here several times. They had not 
known the first time they came and waited that they needed an 
extra photo or an additional document or copy of a document. 
They did not know that the place where they could get such ^ 
photo or document or copy was closed until the end of a holiday 
or the next week or until further notice. They did not fully ap- 
preciate that the most important thing to the sweaty functionary 
hunched over the typewriter was the power he held over his sup- 
plicants, and the surest way to let them feel that power and re- 
spect that power was not to let them get what they wanted and 
needed. That was his purpose, as he saw it — not to make things 
work. Only a fool or a weakling would let these arrogant for- 
eigners waltz in and do what they wished. Look at them. Hah! 
You can see in their faces how spoiled they are — how used to 
having things go their way. . . . 

In the capital’s main streets, people used long poles to pluck 
ripe mangoes off overhanging trees, and pigs rooted through 
piles of garbage. Mechanics repaired motorcycles on canvas 
tarps spread across dirt sidewalks. Several restaurants offered su- 
perb French cuisine, including duckling in bechamel sauce fol- 
lowed by raspberry torte. At intervals lay beggars afflicted with 
river blindness, deformed limbs, and leprosy. Elsewhere, those 
sidewalks suddenly gave way to deep pits where open sewer 



Central Africa: Bangui 137 


channels ran along the bottom. Since there was no illumination 
of the streets at night, and since nights here truly seem darker 
than in other parts of the world — a light-absorbing, palpable, 
moist, velvet dark that, in Bangui, smells of blossoms and ex- 
crement — it became important to walk with care. A moonju 
Peace Corps volunteer had recently tumbled down a sewer hole 
one evening and was shipped home soon thereafter with a use- 
less leg and a variety of infections. 

In the surrounding countryside, les chasseurs des papillons, but- 
terfly hunters, stalked specimens with wings like white brush 
streaks on blue stained glass, vermilion wings that brought to 
mind the sacred powder I saw used for temple offerings in Ne- 
pal, and green wings that turn purple when rotated in the light. 
A great deal of this spangled, air-dancing beauty was netted over 
bait concocted of dog manure and human urine, taking advan- 
tage of the butterflies’ attraction to salty minerals. A few chas- 
seurs stalked prized specimens that kept to the sunlit top of the 
forest canopy. After climbing into the treetops, the men shot 
forked arrows carefully aimed to pin the butterfly against the 
bark by its abdomen. The more common species were brought 
by the sackful to Bangui. There the wings were sliced into frag- 
ments and then worked into mosaic art that was hawked in the 
streets to passing foreigners — mainly French businesspeople, 
technicians, foreign-aid moonjus, and their families. Recreational 
tourists were scarce. 

I quickly grew fond of Bangui, which I don't think yet had a 
traffic light. In pace and scale, it was more like a village than the 
capital of a nation, and I could reach nearly every part of it by 
foot. But as the days passed, it seemed that we were farther 
than ever from reaching Mike Fay. There are only a handful of 
roads in all the C.A.R., and they were currently plagued by an 
outbreak of brigandage — ivory poachers again, AK-47-toting 
bands from neighboring Chad and Sudan who had run out of 
elephants. It looked as though the best bet would be to charter a 
ride on the private plane of a foreign timber company with a 
concession in the area near Mike Fay’s *camp. We wouldn’t be 
able to lift off, though, until Thompson got out of visa hell. The 



If! The Fate of the Elephant 

signs were not encouraging. We had a U.S. embassy official 
working on the case, but the puffed-up tyrant who ruled the 
chamber of the government-form-damned was telling the em- 
bassy man that he, too, could come back later. 

Of course, there was no guarantee that we could track down 
Fay in the jungle even if we ever got there, but that seemed to 
me the easy part. We would find him somehow. We had to find 
him — because Fay, who had been studying the relationship be- 
tween vegetation and lowland gorillas, knew where we could 
find and watch a lot of forest elephants. 


I once spoke with a man who had spent two years gathering in- 
formation about forest elephants in Gabon, part of the same 
great tangled mass of lowland tropical rainforest. He was in the 
field nearly every day, and there were forest elephants every- 
where, judging from the sign. During those two years, he ao 
tually saw the animals twice. Even then, he barely glimpsed 
them. That is how thick the jungle is, and that is why the habits 
and society of forest elephants remain virtually unknown. 

If forest elephants were no more than typical African ele- 
phants that happen to live in dense forest, our lack of knowledge 
about them might not seem like such a shortcoming. But forest 
elephants are sufficiently different to be classified as a separate 
subspecies, Loxodonta africana cyclotis. With the biggest bulls 
standing less than nine feet at the shoulder, they are strikingly 
smaller than Loxodonta africana africana, the savanna, or bush, el- 
ephants found throughout most of the continent. Cyclotis also 
have smallish, rounded ears. Their backs are slightly arched or 
domed in the manner of Asian elephants, and their tusks tend to 
grow straight or even curve slightly downward. Savanna ele- 
phants have enormous ears, a more or less level back, and 
upward-curving tusks. 

Any ivory dealer could tell you a further difference: the ivory 
of cyclotis tusks is much denser than that of savanna elephants 
and more highly valued for certain types of detailed carving 



Cbntkal Africa: Bangui 139 

work. Traders instantly recognize “hard” ivory, as they call it, 
for it has little of the porous grain or striadons of die “soft” 
ivory taken from savanna elephants. Forest elephant tusks often 
appear more brown or orange-red than white. This is the result 
of surface staining from chemicals in the soil and vegetadon. It 
can be washed or scraped off. In some regions, however, the in- 
side of the tusks may have a darker cast as well, presumably 
from the inclusion of minerals in the dentine. Dealers may pay 
a premium for the pinkish variety of hard ivory, known as rose 
ivory. 

As Western naturalists began probing through Africa's rain- 
forests, many became convinced that a still smaller species or 
subspecies of elephant dwelled there. They called it the pygmy 
elephant. Some authorities still recognize a diminutive type of 
elephant labeled Loxodonta pumilio or Loxodonta africana pumilio. 
Safari operators in the region tend to confirm its existence, 
if only because they can then sell pygmy elephant hunts to 
trophy-seekers who have not yet shot such a creature. The same 
rainforest environment harbors pygmy human tribes, pygmy 
chimpanzees, and pygmy hippopotamuses. That it could have 
produced a scaled-down elephant does not seem unreasonable. 
We know that several different parts of the world produced 
pygmy elephants and mammoths during the Ice Ages. 

Not long ago, what was thought to be a pygmy elephant was 
captured and shipped to a zoo in the West. A few years later, the 
animal had grown up and revealed itself to be an ordinary forest 
elephant, which is what most scientists now consider the so- 
called pygmy elephants of modem Africa to be. The confusion 
arises mainly from another quality of the forest elephant's hard 
ivory tusks — namely, that they grow very quickly. Whereas a 
juvenile savanna elephant will have relatively short tusks, a par- 
tially grown forest elephant only a few feet high at the shoulder 
may carry nearly full-length tusks. It can therefore easily be mis- 
taken for an adult specimen of a very short elephant. (For that 
matter, the pygmy chimp, or bonobo, isn’t a true pygmy form 
either. It weighs the same as the common chimp and is merely 
more slender, with a smaller head and shoulders and longer legs. 



*40 The Fate of the Elephant 

Lest aggressive in its social groups than its more familiar rela- 
tive, die bonobo is also more endangered, having been shot out 
of existence in all but one part of Zaire.) 

Biologists haven’t altogether written off the possibility of dis- 
covering true pygmy elephants. In 1991, two German zoologists 
published a paper asserting that pumilio is a genuine species, 
based on skull characteristics they measured and second-hand 
reports from the Congo region of social groupings consisting 
entirely of undersize elephants and their offspring. Who can 
be sure that races or populations of unusually small forest ele- 
phants haven’t developed in, for instance, certain marshlands 
with highly acid soils and a poor supply of nutrients? 

The Congo Basin still counts as anything-is-possible country. 
It is where the giraffe’s closest relative, the okapi, went unde- 
tected by science until around 1900. And it is where expeditions 
periodically go today to follow up the latest reported sighting of 
mokili-mbimbi, the swamp-dwelling brontosaur — or something 
very like one. The tracks are said to be far bigger than those of 
the biggest elephant. Curiously, sightings by local people tend 
to increase in direct proportion to the number of moonjus with 
money in their pockets coming to look for the creature. But that 
is the nature of the monster-chasing business and always has 
been, and it still doesn’t take the fun out of it. 

The fellow who spent two years among forest elephants and 
only caught sight of them twice was Richard Barnes, head of the 
Forest Elephant Research Group based at Cambridge University 
in England. When I visited him there briefly, he pointed out that 
since savanna elephants had been so widely decimated, forest el- 
ephants probably made up one-third to one-half the elephant 
population remaining in Africa. Gabon alone held an estimated 
85,000, more than all of East Africa put together. Not that 
people weren’t trying every bit as hard to kill forest elephants as 
savanna elephants, but the rainforest remained infinitely harder 
to get to and get through, with dark, sluggish rivers forming the 
only available routes of transport to many realms. Once the 
poachers did reach the elephants, they still had to track them 
through the jungle a group at a time. For efficient commercial 



Central Africa; Bangui 141 


killing, this cannot match racing over open plains in radio- 
equipped vehicles after big herds with no place to hide. 

So nearly one out of every two or three elephants left in Africa 
dwells in the equatorial jungles, protected for the time being to 
some extent by the impenetrability of their habitat. And, for the 
same basic reason, one out of every two or three elephants left 
in Africa remains an enigma to science. Richard Barnes shook 
his head and said, “They won’t be safe for long. Oil exploration 
and development, hardwood logging, and schemes to clear the 
forest for agriculture are already creating road access far into the 
interior and transforming the rainforest. Now, suppose some- 
one were to come to me and say, ‘We want to set aside a reserve 
to protect our forest elephants, and we’re going to really do it 
properly. Will you please tell us how big it should be?’ Sorry, 
haven’t a clue. We don’t know what the usual home range is for 
these animals or how much their movements vary seasonally. 
‘Well, how many animals should our reserve enclose to maintain 
a healthy population?’ We don’t know. ‘What is the typical fam- 
ily structure?’ We’re not exactly sure. ‘What sort of herds form 
in the forest?’ Terribly sorry, but we don’t know that either.” 


I had all but given up on Thompson getting out of visa hell in 
time to catch Mike Fay when none other than Mike Fay showed 
up in Bangui. Shortly afterward, a direct appeal from the Amer- 
ican ambassador shook Thompson loose from the bureaucrat's 
chamber of eternal irritation. To top it all off. Mike was sporting 
a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser pickup truck he had finagled 
through customs after months of paperwork. The three of us 
threw our gear in the back and tore away down the road. Pe- 
riodically, we had to pull over to have our papers inspected by 
police stationed at barricades along the route. They checked and 
double-checked to make sure that this was indeed Mike’s truck 
and that Mike was indeed Mike and so on, ad nauseum, because 
there was always a chance that something was not in order and 
they could throw us into a new level of hell in another concrete 



142 The Fate op the Elephant 

building complete with self-important bureaucrat, typewriter, 
and stack of official nuisance forms, overseen by a faded picture 
of the president. His Excellency, General of the Army Andre 
Kolingba. 

In between, Mike drove at full tilt, reasoning that he could be 
past a bandit ambush by the time anyone started shooting. After 
midnight, we pulled off the road for a few minutes to eat in a 
roadside village of square mud huts with tin roofs. A fire burned 
in the center of a dirt plaza. Next to it were three itinerant drum- 
mers from Zaire. While they drummed, people danced in the 
firelight, and young men drank and fought in the shadows. One 
came by dragging a little boy by his shirt and kicking him in the 
face. We took turns guarding the gear piled in the pickup bed and 
waiting for the eggs and spicy vegetables being scrambled by a 
man at a table next to the fire. The drumming was incredibly 
complex and infectious, and I shuffle-danced through my tour of 
duty at the pickup. Then we hit the road again, and I tried to nap 
in the back between the bumpier stretches. * 

Before dawn, we came to a village called Bayanga. Mike led 
us to a house on stilts that had been built by Slovenia-Bois, the 
logging company with a concession in this area, which is known 
as Dzanga-Sangha. It was noticeably hotter and muggier than in 
the capital, which I had not thought possible. The house was 
big. Bats flew through it chasing bugs. Moving lines of ants pat- 
terned the walls. I crawled beneath a mosquito net and, too tired 
to sleep, lay listening to my pores drip. 

Finally, I did doze. When I was awakened by noises nearby, I 
had to fight my way out of a snakelike torpor. Hunkered outside 
the door was a tall, nut-brown, very thin and thin-haired moonju 
wearing only ragged shorts and a hopeful grin. 

“Ah. You’re finally up,” he noted. “Say, is that cereal in that 
box? Far out. When did you get in? Last night? I haven’t had ce- 
real for months. Actually, I haven’t had any kind of food lately. 
Kept puking it up at first, and then I didn’t want to eat anything. 
Malaria again. I still have it. You got any malaria tabs?” 1 rum- 
maged for my bottle and shook out a handful, which he took 
without thanks. “I was staying in the forest with the pygmies. 



Central Africa: Bangui 143 


Lots of malaria out there. Before I got this malaria, I got stung 
by bees and ended up with an allergic reaction. Man, it almost 
killed me, and now 1 have to be careful I don’t get stung again. 
But there are bees everywhere in the forest. Especially around 
pygmy camps. They cover your whole body all day long some- 
times. I have to do everything slowly so 1 don’t accidentally trap 
one, like in the bend of my arm. I mean, one more sting, and I’m 
gone. It’s weird. You got any bee-sting injections you could let 
me have? Powdered milk! You’ve got powdered 0*@!$ milk! 
All right! Wait. We’ll need to mix that with water. I’ll get it. Be 
right back.” 

“Anybody we know?” I asked Mike as he padded into the 
main room and began to paw through our food boxes for coffee. 

“Louie,” he answered. “Screwy Louie. I think he’s from New 
Jersey.” 

“I think he’s hungry.” 

“He’s always mooching food, but he does look a little skinnier 
than usual,” Mike agreed. “I don’t think he’s had anybody to 
talk English to for a while either.” 

“I remember getting that way a few times,” I said. 

“He came here to record the pygmies’ music,” Mike ex- 
plained, “and now he’s more or less living with them. If we’re 
not feeding him, they are. He’:, not really way out in the jungle 
with them the whole time. He lives in their camp at the edge of 
the village.” 

“They’re camped close to here?” 

Mike heaved a sigh of resignation and said, “Everybody 
seems to think pygmies live deep in the forest by themselves. 
But they’ve had a trading relationship with villagers for hun- 
dreds of years, maybe longer. They bring in smoked meat, me- 
dicinal herbs and their own special concoctions, honey, and 
other forest products they gather. They trade for machetes, fab- 
rics, different kinds of food. They used to stay in the forest for 
most of the year and come in to hang around the villages for 
maybe a couple of months. Now it’s almost the reverse in a lot 
of places. Other tribes have taken ove^ a lot of pygmy territory, 
and the pygs are addicted to the villagers’ tobacco and whiskey. 



144 The Fate of the Evefhant 

And starch. A lot of villagers treat them like crap, but they’re 
still here. And their songs and dances — those are amazing,” 
Mike continued. ”1 don’t know how much longer traditions like 
that will last. I think Louie’s on to something, trying to docu- 
ment them.” 

The door banged open, and Louie flew in along with a con- 
tingent of daytime insects. “Any of you guys have some extra 
batteries? I’ve used up all mine on my tape recorder. I was sup- 
posed to get some more, but they never came;. The check I was 
supposed to get hasn’t come either, or I could probably buy 
some off you. Man, I wish I knew where that check was. Could 
be anywhere. You making coffee? The head man wants me to 
marry his daughter. I like her. I guess I wouldn’t mind marrying 
her. But he wants me to pay him 4500 C.A.R. francs. Whoa. 
That’s, what, about fifteen U.S. dollars! That’s a lot of money. 
What’s this? Oh, tinned beef. Too rich for my stomach the way 
I feel now. You brought all kinds of supplies, didn’t you. Wow! 
Spaghetti! I’d love to eat some spaghetti. We’re going to nee$l 
more water. What are you guys having? I’ll go get the stove 
going.” 

When Louie ducked out, Mike said, “You know that pygmy 
girl he talked about marrying? She’s beautiful. Fifteen dollars for 
a dowry, though. That is a fair amount of money out here. Big 
dilemma for Screwy Louie.” 

I was listening to a favorite tape of Zairois choq — good-time 
bar music from Zaire — on my pocket cassette player as Louie re- 
turned to the room. “Tell me about pygmy music,” I asked. 

Louie reflected a moment. “Pygmy music is very, very rich. 
Tremendously sophisticated. I consider it superior to Beetho- 
ven,” he said, grabbing for a cracker. He did not make such 
comparisons casually, I learned later on. A candidate for a mas- 
ter’s degree in mathematics before he lit out for the jungle, Louie 
maintained a lifelong and serious appreciation of classical music. 
Beethoven in particular. 

“You have to hear it yourself,” Louie went on. “You might 
get a chance to hear it in the right setting. Sometimes the pyg- 
mies sing around a fire, calling in the forest spirits while the fire 



Central Africa: Bangui 145 


dies down. When all that’s left is a kind of red glow from the em- 
bers, the dancers come out of the shadows, where they’ve been 
hiding. They’ve covered their bodies with phosphorescent 
mold, like you see coating parts of the forest floor at night. You 
know? So, here they come, glowing and dancing and singing. 
It’s pretty far out. Could you pass me another one of those crack- 
ers? Muummph. Pretty dramatic. There was a French fl|m crew 
here not long ago to make a television special about the pygmies. 
The French heard about this phosphorescent dance and decided 
they just had to have that on film. Just had to. The pygmies 
didn’t want to do it, though. There wasn’t any traditional oc- 
casion for performing the ceremony, and they didn’t want to do 
it for show. Well, the French crew kept on throwing francs at 
them until they finally decided to do it. So the pygmies rub on 
the mold and go through the motions, and this guy shoves a mi- 
crophone into one pygmy’s face and says, ‘Tell us what the 
meaning of this dance is.’ The pygmy just smiles and shakes his 
head. The film guy is going, ‘But it is very important. Please tell 
us what this dance is all about.’ Finally, the pygmy looks into the 
camera and says, ‘This is a dance we are doing for money.’ ” 

Mike told of another film crew working in neighboring 
Chad. They wanted to film a tribe known to hunt big game by 
walking among the animals while wearing a black cloak and a 
hornbill headpiece to disguise their human form. We don’t do 
that anymore, the Chadian villagers told the filmmakers; we still 
know how, but the military has shot all the animals. So the crew 
arranged to bring the Chadians down to the C. A.R. and bought 
them all licenses so they could go on a hunt in their cloaks. 

While lowland tropical rainforest robes the southern rim of 
the C.A.R., a broad belt of relatively moist, wooded, Ghanane 
(Ghana-like) savanna runs across the center, and the northern 
third is semiarid savanna. That is a good mixture of biomes, 
combined with one of the lowest human densities south of the 
Sahara — less than thirteen people, per square mile. You would 
think the C. A.R. offered wildlife in abundance. But those Chad- 
ians in hornbill headgear didn’t find the 'hunting all that much 
better on the C. A.R. side of the border. Poaching caravans from 



146 Thb Fate of the Elephant 

Chad and Sudan had cleaned out most of the savanna game 
herds, particularly in the north. Highly organized, they came 
with camels, donkeys, and horses; cooks, scouts, and skinners. 
In many respects, they were merely continuing patterns of raids 
to the south many centuries old. But the weapons were deadlier. 

The poaching gangs included soldiers of a rebel people’s lib- 
eration army in southern Sudan, who used ivory poached from 
the'C.A.R. and Uganda to finance their independence move- 
ment. Though well armed with military fifepower, the Su- 
danese occasionally ran down elephants on horseback and 
severed the animals’ foot tendons, slashing them with finely 
honed spear blades while galloping alongside. The Sudanese 
warriors did it this way for the glory and adrenaline, and to 
uphold a long-standing reputation for this method of slaying 
elephants. 

What foreign poachers missed, the C. A.R. military and game 
rangers poached. Together, they had transformed some of the 
richest wildlife range in Africa into empty plains. Cattle were 
finishing the job, driven south by Chadian and Sudanese herders 
who had already overgrazed and desertified the arid range on 
their own side of the border. I met a moonju safari operator from 
the northern C. A. R. who had killed some 5000 trespassing cattle 
in his hunting allotment over the past few years. He asked the 
Mbororo herders from Chad why they persisted in coming 
when he shot their stock. They answered that the beasts would 
be even more sure to die if they stayed and starved back home. 

Studying a C.A.R. map, I saw what appeared to be an im- 
pressive array of parklands. In reality, most of them had more 
illegal cattle than hooved wildlife within their borders and no 
park staff or facilities to speak of. One, Parc de Andre Felix, 
hadn’t had a real tourist since the i9$os. Others were leased to 
Conoco for oil exploration and development. Still others be- 
came safari hunting concessions operated almost exclusively by 
and for moonjus, mostly Frenchmen. And a few parks had simply 
been degazetted in recent years. 

A massive European Economic Community effort called Pro- 
jet Nord was under way in the semiarid savannas. The intent 



Central Africa: Bangui 147 


was to develop agriculture and herding in tandem with a system 
of wildlife cropping that would produce a sustained yield of 
meat, hides — and francs from the sale of such wildlife products. 
This, it was believed, would demonstrate to local people the 
economic value of preserving wild creatures. In theory, the con- 
cept was sound. It was a very large project, though, involving 
water storage schemes, lots of road-building, and construction 
boomtowns. And a very expensive project. Some of the money 
actually reached the work sites. The rest, as ever, found its way 
into the pockets of officials, beginning at the ministerial level in 
Bangui and continuing down to local rural-development offi- 
cers. Another megaproject, another round of direct foreign aid 
for corruption. 

Meanwhile, it seemed that every laborer brought in to these 
previously remote rural areas was soon joined by a collection of 
his bon freres (the local phrase for good buddies and shirt-tail rel- 
atives), who came to hang out and poach. Enforcement of game 
laws was less than rigorous. Unable to countenance shooting 
poachers. Projet Nord had issued the local wardens whistles 
rather than guns. Whistles against AK-47S and submachine 
guns. This was a source of endless amusement to the foreign sa- 
fari operators in the region, who had formed brigades that pa- 
trolled by motorcycle and dealt with poachers the same way they 
dealt with trespassing cattle. But the poachers were still thick, 
and poachers-turned-highwaymen had waylaid a couple of Pro- 
jet Nord vehicles shortly before I arrived. 

Mike used to work in the northern region. He once found 
eight hippos slaughtered at one waterhole. From each huge an- 
imal, the only thing taken was a strip of skin from the belly. It 
was to make a strap for a poacher’s rifle. Of the hundreds of 
thousands of elephants found in the C.A.R. just two decades 
earlier, at least 90 percent were gone. As in Kenya, the survivors 
had banded together into frightened, often leaderless, and end- 
lessly harassed refugee groups wandering from one region to the 
next in search of asylum. 

The most intact wildlife habitat was in the rainforests of the 

t 

Congo Basin region, which makes up no more than 15 percent 



14% Thb Fate of the Elephant 

of the nation. And the best habitat of all was probably right 
around us in Dzanga-Sangha. 

Once we got ourselves and Louie fed, we went down to the 
riverbank to have a look around. The first thing that caught my 
attention was a tall, pale man with white hair, a white beard, a 
long, tattered, white robe, and sandals, walking toward the 
riverbank. His tread was slow and solemn, his hands clasped 
behind his back and eyes uplifted to the sky. He looked other- 
worldly, and he was. A French missionary, he was as indifferent 
to us as to the fact that the motor on the dugout that was to con- 
vey him and his satchel downstream into the Republic of Congo 
refused to start. He merely waited and prayed while some vil- 
lagers repaired the motor. In time, he departed, eyes still on the 
heavens, which remained hidden by a haze of hot mist. 

Then we started to do all over again what we had done in 
Bangui — make a series of visits to various authorities, fill out 
more forms, and then make courtesy calls to whichever other of- 
ficials needed to be informed of our visit. This meant, first, a trip 
to the local gendarme — a uniformed cop in a little concrete 
building with a typewriter overseen not only by the president’s 
photo but by handcuffs, bloodstained truncheons, and a poster- 
calendar of chimpanzees dressed in human clothes and posed in 
ludicrous situations. The gendarme informed us that he was 
very busy and would have to keep our passports for a while. 
Then we trundled over to the district official, who had us explain 
over and over again why we had no passports. Next we visited 
the guards of the Department of Water and Forests. In theory, 
they looked after the region’s natural resources. In practice, they, 
along with the cops, were among the privileged few to have 
guns and used them to poach big game. Or else they loaned out 
their guns to the locals in return for the largest share of the 
poaching profits. 

That evening, Mike raced down in his truck toward a little 
outpost called Lindjombo to retrieve some gear he had stashed, 
for his research camp was not far from there. He returned with 
a thief arrested by the Lindjombo gendarmes handcuffed to his 
tailgate for delivery to the Bayanga station. As the prisoner was 



Central Africa: Bangui 149 

being led away in Bayanga, he broke loose and ran for the jun- 
gle. The gendarme and his assistants quickly caught up with 
him. They took him to their little concrete house. The last 
sounds Mike heard upon driving away were the steady thwack 
of the truncheon upon the thief’s feet combined with the wails 
of a grown man calling out for his mother. 

Meanwhile, I had learned a bit more about pygmies. Not so 
long ago, their relationship with villagers in the Bayanga area 
apparently involved more mutual respect. The villagers put 
great stock in the pygmies’ forest medicines and called on them 
to dance when someone in the village died. Then Bayanga was 
flooded by workers from outside, first for a coffee plantation and 
then for the timber company, and the newcomers had no special 
rapport with pygmies. The new people called the pygmies ig- 
norant. Poor. People who have no houses and sit on the dirt. 
Apes. Chimps. Animals. 

These days, the pygmies were often treated like indentured 
servants. Villagers conscripted pygmies to fetch and carry and 
work in their fields, paying them off with trifling amounts of 
manioc or liquor or sometimes nothing. Some treated the pyg- 
mies cordially, more in the manner of a member of a privileged 
class relating to a commoner. Others would beat a pygmy who 
ran away from work to the forest, or else take it out on the 
pygmy’s family. A village man felt entitled to stroll into a pyg- 
my’s hut and take whatever he desired, including, sometimes, 
women. (A few days later in our sojourn, Bill Thompson gave 
a new T-shirt to a pygmy who had guided us, and a villager was 
wearing it the next day.) If you killed a villager in an auto acci- 
dent, you could expect to have to pay the family U.S. $330 in 
compensation. Run over a pygmy, and the cost dropped to U.S. 
(66. The number of pygmies in the world is estimated at be- 
tween 30,000 and 50,000, about the same as Asian elephants, 
which are considered endangered. How many of them in this 
particular part of the Congo Basin were true pygmies, as op- 
posed to pygmy-Bantu mixes, was impossible for me to tell, but 
there were plainly a number of mixed-blood people in the 
pygmy villages. 



ISO The Fath of the Elephant 

The next morning, we were to continue calling on local offi- 
cials, but Mike was slow in getting rolling. “Malaria," he grum- 
bled and took a handful of pills from Thompson and me. He had 
spent the previous night telling us what he had been doing for 
the two-and-a-half months before he met us: surveying ele- 
phants through a largely unmapped section of the Republic of 
Congo. To get there, he first had to travel to the capital, Braz- 
zaville, and make contacts with various authorities. 

“It was ivory fever everywhere in that country,” he com- 
mented. “You go to a restaurant, everyone’s talking about ivory. 
Hop on a boat or a plane, they’re still talking ivory. Shop at a 
store, walk through a village — ivory.” Once upriver and near- 
ing his intended survey area — ivory. He passed a Frenchman 
deep in the jungle who had a pygmy wife and 200 grass-skirted 
pygmies working for him— all hunting ivory. 

A century earlier, Joseph Conrad’s journey through the Con- 
go Basin would leave him with fevers that recurred through- 
out the remainder of his life and with memories that went intp 
his bitter vision of humanity. Heart of Darkness : “The word 
ivory rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. A taint of im- 
becile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse 
. . . and outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared 
speck of the earth struck me as something great and invincible, 
like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this 
fantastic invasion ...” 

In the weeks that followed, Mike traversed several thousand 
square miles of the Congo Basin with a dugout canoe and 
pygmy guides, trying to get an idea of what the current elephant 
population might be. Like Richard Barnes in Gabon, he didn’t 
try to count elephants directly. Rather, he relied upon a system 
through which elephant droppings, trails, tracks, feeding areas, 
and other sign are counted along a six-mile transect and fed into 
a formula that converts density of sign to density of animals. 

Part of his route was through forest, part through marsh, and 
part through what Mike described as thorn swamp. “That was 
the worst,” he said. “Day after day of nothing but sinking into 
mud with thorny plants growing out of it, and they weren’t 



Cents al Africa: Bangui 151 

even tall enough to give you at least a little shade from the sun. 
You know what, though? There were elephants all over the place 
in that part of the Congo. It’s got to be one of the best popula- 
tions left anywhere. The poaching isn’t that intense yet. It’s 
mostly still undeveloped wilderness — one of the biggest, wild- 
est places you could still hope to find in the world. Lowland go- 
rillas all over the place. Chimpanzees everywhere. It’s the same 
in the area where I’ve been doing research just downriver from 
here. Not many people work in this ecosystem or want to. 
They’ll talk about how wonderful and diverse this rainforest is, 
but they’d rather do yet another study in someplace more com- 
fortable, more convenient. They don’t appreciate how many op- 
portunities there are here to study species and relationships that 
are virtually unknown — begging to be understood. It’s fantastic 
country. Unbelievable. You’re going to love it!” 

I studied this man closely. He was of average height and 
slightly built, with fair skin, dark hair, a moustache, and thick 
glasses. In sum, I thought he closely resembled photographs I 
had seen of James Joyce. Before coffee, before Mike had first ad- 
mitted to diarrhea and a touch of malarial fever, he had dug a 
tiny tick out of the corner of his eye. This was his fourth case of 
malaria. Once, when the disease had been the virulent strain 
called falciparum, or cerebral, malaria, he had stopped breath- 
ing. Fortunately, that case had struck when he was on the road 
rather than in the jungle, and he had been able to get close to a 
hospital before he passed out. Now, as he struggled to put on his 
socks, I stopped him. 

“What the hell happened to your feet?” They were a horror 
fest of red, seeping blotches and were missing half their toenails. 

“Footworms,” he said evenly. “They come from walking 
through the water. You’ll probably get them. They never bur- 
row very deep. It’s just that you have to let them do their thing. 
If you dig in after them, the wound will go septic. I call them 
footworms; I don’t actually know what kind of worm they are. 
You can get them anywhere.” Mike showed me fresh festers on 
his bare shoulder. “I’ve got one on ,my ass, too. These other 
things on my feet are just thorn cuts and scratches. My toenails 



152 Tub Fate of the Elephant 

finally rotted off from all the wading. I must have waded more 
than I walked for a couple of hundred kilometers." 

Thompson and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes, 
both of us clearly wondering whether we were going to be able 
to keep up with this guy. He hadn’t paused to rest since leaving 
the Congo, and it didn’t look as though malaria was going to 
stop him today any more than the hamburger feet that we could 
look forward to had. 



SIX 


Central Africa: 
Bayanga 


ICjlCjlCjlET By afternoon, w e had picked up a forest guard 
and two pygmies and were bumping along a partially over- 
grown Slovenia-Bois logging road in the Toyota, stopping now 
and then to hack away trees fallen — or pushed by elephants — 
across the track. The guard was noisily bossing the pygmies 
around until he realized that we were not the sort of moonjus who 
expected heavy-handed bossing, and he soon gave it up. He 
turned out to have a good rapport with the pygmies, as he had 
grown up in Bayanga and known them all his life. As for the 
pygmies themselves, the farther we went into the jungle, the 
more the zombielike mask the) sometimes wore in the village 
lifted and was replaced by animated delight. 

Some distance into the forest, we left the truck and slithered 
down a muddy trail potholed with elephant tracks and ripe with 
fresh dung. Where we encountered a shallow, sandy stream, we 
also met small crocodiles and a solitary bull elephant that had 
come to drink and to graze the shoreline grasses. He thundered 
upstream. We forded the water and on the opposite shore found 
the open, sunlit stretch of trail practically paved with butterflies 
of every size and hue. Uncoiling their proboscises — their thin 
butterfly trunks— they were busy probing mud enriched with 
fresh elephant urine. 

“Twiners entwining twiners — tresses like hair — beautiful 
lepidopters — silence — hosannah.” 1 had time to recall those 
lines scribbled into a notebook by Charles Darwin during one of 



154 The Fate of thb Elephant 

his first excursions to the Brazilian interior. I thought of his suc- 
cessor Henry Bates describing butterflies like bright flakes of 
color racing each other down jungle paths. And then the forest 
closed around the trail, deep, twilit, and immanent, a three- 
dimensional maze that all but sealed out the sky. It was like 
walking into the earth without going underground. There was 
nothing to do but plunge in, for the others were already racing 
far ahead. Suddenly, I had no use for the sophisticated purposes 
I had carried with me to this place. I felt as though I were em- 
barking on a journey into an ancient, sacred realm; that I should 
somehow have prepared my soul for it better, purified myself. 
The air smelled like steamed leaves. Doves hidden somewhere in 
the gloom overhead cried incantations. 

With only slight variations in temperature and humidity from 
day to night and season to season, tropical rainforests are among 
the most constant of land environments. They have been for 
millions of years. Plants and animals face fewer demands from 
the physical conditions than from biological forces of competi- 
tion, predation, and parasitism. In short, they are adapting 
mainly to one another. The struggle of each species to carve out 
a niche within an already crowded living space results in a pro- 
liferation of intricate, specialized lifestyles. Ultimately, this cre- 
ates the stunning biological diversity characteristic of tropical 
forests. 

For example, insects that eat a certain plant will tend to con- 
tinually evolve better ways to attack it. These are countered by 
more effective defenses on the part of the plant. Often, it “in- 
vents” new chemical compounds that are toxic to the insect, in- 
hibit its growth and maturation, or perhaps attract enemies of 
that particular bug. Other compounds are produced through 
natural genetic engineering to deal with larger, leaf-munching 
animals or with microscopic fungi and bacteria. Tropical rain- 
forests, which hold more than half of all Earth’s species on less 
than 5 percent of its total surface, amount to the most creative 
chemical laboratories on earth. Less than 10 percent of these 
plant species have been systematically screened for active com- 
pounds, yet half the pharmaceutical products used by human- 
kind at the moment come from tropical vegetation. 



Central Africa: Bayanga 155 

A plant can also make itself more difficult to attack by becom- 
ing harder to find. Jungle species that grow in clusters or stands 
are vulnerable to infestation by insects and various diseases. 
Once such enemies have found the first plant, they can easily 
move on to the next, building up their own populations in the 
process until they begin to cause serious damage. The ecological 
solution for the plant species is to develop a more random dis- 
tribution. As individual plants become better separated from 
one another, the creatures that eat them have to make their way 
past more nonfood plants and more of their own enemies to ob- 
tain a meal. At some point, starvation and predation begin to 
claim enough of them that they cease to be a threat. That point 
represents the plant’s optimum density — the best balance be- 
tween being abundant and being safely dispersed. 

In the tropics, then, you rarely find a lot of individuals from 
one plant species in any one place. Instead, you find a few indi- 
viduals from all kinds of species in almost every place. A single 
hectare (about two-and-a-half acres) selected at random from 
the rainforest of Borneo contains about seven hundred different 
species of trees, compared to four hundred for all of temperate 
North America. 

In other words, as I made my way through the jungle, 1 had 
absolutely no idea what most of the plants I was looking at 
might be. The exceptions were a few palms and pineapplelike 
bromeliads — and one squashed-looking mess of pulp on the 
ground. Mike picked it up and pronounced it to be elephant 
chewing gum. “It comes from a plant called Desplatsia dewevrei ,” 
he told me. “The fruit is the size of a coconut, very fibrous and 
mucilaginous. It’s also high in protein. The elephants chew on it 
a long time to extract all the value from the thing before they fi- 
nally spit it out.” 

An hour later, the trail led to an opening. I could make out 
rain clouds thickening above what Mike termed Gilbertiodendron 
trees, whose branches mushroomed two hundred feet in the air, 
wreathed with flowering vines. Next to them grew ironwood 
trees with leaves that turned progressively more red toward the 
top, giving the whole plant the appearance of an immense, rip- 
ening blossom. Grey parrots with scarlet tails swept between the 



i §6 The Fate or the Biifhakt 

trees in raucous swarms. Mike held up his hand and cocked his 
head. From beyond the bushes ahead of us came other sounds — 
giant sounds of trumpeting and splashing. “The salines,” he 
whispered. “Elephant time.” 

A series of salty springs — salines in French — issued from the 
ground to form marshes of low-growing sedge. In the course of 
seeking minerals here, generations of animals had enlarged the 
clearing, stripping and trampling nearby vegetation. We crept 
step by quiet step toward a position with a cleacfield of view. As 
I raised my head slowly from behind a fallen log, what struck me 
was not the sight of muddy elephants, which I had seen before, 
but the sight of muddy elephants, giant forest hogs, and sturdy, 
mahogany-red antelope striped with thin, vertical, white lines 
like sunlight slanting through palm fronds. These were bongos, 
perhaps the most rarely observed of Africa’s nearly sixty species 
of antelope. A half-dozen of them stood together at one end of 
the clearing, shaking their heads to clear away clouds of insects. 
Several more bongos moved alone or in pairs between clustess 
of the round-eared, straight-tusked elephants. 

The elephants numbered about twenty. As sunlight seeped in 
between the rain clouds, I could make out the swollen, white 
bodies of engorged ticks fastened here and there to their bellies 
and sides. Forest elephants did look small, now that I had settled 
down enough to focus on them. It was as if the fully grown 
adults in these families were off somewhere else for the moment. 
They weren’t; I was looking at the adults. The tremendous size 
of the trees at the edge of the rainforest made the animals seem 
smaller yet. I was used to elephants standing out as one of the 
most conspicuous features in the landscape. My impression was 
that the irises of their eyes were generally lighter colored than 
those of savanna elephants, which would make sense, in that a 
jungle dweller needs less pigment to filter out strong sunlight 
than an open-country dweller does. 

More elephants appeared. Like those present, they were gen- 
erally in small groups of between two and five animals. That 
much is known about cyclotis society — that the average size of 
family units is considerably smaller than among savanna ele- 



Central Africa: Bayanca 157 

phants. Animals associated with thick vegetation typically have 
smaller group sizes than those that dwell in more open terrain. 
This has to do with the patchy, scattered nature of the food sup- 
ply in tropical forests. Shrublands and savannas have more ho- 
mogenous vegetation, and larger groups are able to forage 
together within a given area. 

Small group size also simply reflects the greater difficulty an- 
imals have traveling together in dense, tangled habitats. Another 
influence in the case of the elephant may be the virtual absence 
in this ecosystem of large predators that hunt in formidable so- 
cial groups, namely lions and hunting dogs. Once a forest ele- 
phant grows large enough to cope with leopards, which usually 
hunt alone, it has little need for the security of a large family 
band. (Male forest elephants may go off on their own at a rela- 
tively early age. Seeing one of these juveniles, complete with 
large tusks and the sort of solitary habits that only fairly mature 
bulls exhibit among savanna elephants, an observer could be for- 
given for thinking: Aha! No doubt about it — a fully grown 
pygmy elephant.) 

What sorts of relationships exist between the small families of 
forest elephants? Are there bond groups that at least tend to oc- 
cupy the same general vicinity and associate from time to time? 
Do related bond groups form clans, as among savanna ele- 
phants? Although you or I might not be able to see from one el- 
ephant to the next through the foliage, it is quite possible that the 
elephants themselves remain well aware of one another’s where- 
abouts as they traverse the jungle. For in addition to their superb 
sense of smell, they have the ability to communicate through 
infrasound. 

Infrasound is the trembling voice of distant volcanoes and 
earthquakes, the deep music of tides and rivers. Who knows 
what tales of the earth elephants hear? These frequencies are 
pitched so low that the wavelengths travel in slow swells, like a 
rolling sea or a long streamer gently undulating in the breeze. 
They are not easily blocked by objects in the way. They bend 
over and around. You can picture them slipping and snaking past 
tree trunks and branches. In a sense, elephant-generated infra- 



158 Thb Fatb of the Elephant 


sound may have been designed to do just that — penetrate the 
thick baffles of rainforest vegetation. The rainforest, after all, is 
where elephants probably evolved. They possess an ideal means 
of keeping in contact within such a setting. How often they use 
it and to what social purposes is still anyone’s guess. 

To discover the details about cyclotis social groupings and how 
they divide up available habitat, researchers will probably have 
to rely upon radio collars — ones that transmit at low enough fre- 
quencies to be effective in the jungle. For now, i would settle for 
the rare opportunity afforded by the salines at Dzanga-Sangha of 
being able to watch families interact for several days in a row. 

Casually observed, forest elephant behavior appeared much 
the same as among savanna elephants. There were the usual 
sparring contests between young males. A four-year-old with 
strikingly well developed tusks raised his trunk in the air and re- 
peatedly charged a big male bongo to drive it from a mud wal- 
low. Subordinate families were displaced by dominant ones at 
favored seeps, where the animals plunged their trunks down to 
the hilt, presumably to find the saltiest solutions. And, as ever, 
the contact between mothers and their younger offspring was 
continual and affectionate. I did not notice many greeting cere- 
monies as various families joined at the salines, and those I did 
see seldom had the intensity I had come to expect from Ambo- 
seli. However, this could well have been a matter of chance and 
limited observation time rather than a genuine difference. 

One morning, we arrived early at the salines and did not see 
the first elephant until nearly two o’clock in the afternoon, when 
a cow with twin six-year-olds and an approximately ten-year- 
old subadult appeared. They lingered at the jungle’s edge, 
watching the same Hartlaub’s ducks and cattle egrets that we had 
been watching all morning wade through the pools. The cow 
was tense and wary, apparently uncomfortable that her group 
was alone. When she finally did approach an open seep, a chase 
between the pair of cattle egrets there caused her to shy away. 
You would have thought the birds were lions. She cautiously re- 
turned and began to circle around them. Then she broke into an 
elephant dance, head-waggling and bouncing. The birds ig- 



Central Africa: Bayanga i$g 

nored her until she walked up and used her trunk to slap water 
at them. While the egrets circled through the clearing to alight 
at a different pool, she and her family drank briefly but suddenly 
broke off and shuffled away down the closest forest path through 
a storm of butterflies. Perhaps they had caught our scent. Maybe 
it was people that they had been nervous about all along. 

The salines were empty of mammals once more until a soli- 
tary sitatunga, white spots dappling its orange fur, came into 
view among the taller sedges. The hooves of this marsh- 
dwelling antelope are elongated, with the two toes spread 
widely apart. Like the long-toed feet of egrets and other wading 
birds, they distribute the animal’s weight so that it doesn’t sink 
deep into the boggy ground with each step. The sitatunga there- 
fore has an advantage over a heavy predator in a race through the 
reeds. And if it can’t outrun the predator, it may escape by 
plunging into deeper water and staying completely submerged 
like a hippo. 

Afternoon rain clouds once again formed above the treetops. 
The trees themselves were helping to build the clouds with 
moist exhalations — the tons of water drawn up by their roots 
and transpired through the pores of their leaves. I haven’t seen a 
figure for the Congo Basin, but scientists calculate that the Am- 
azon Basin’s rainforests create percent of their own rain. 

By midafternoon, the sky had grown fairly dark, though not 
a degree cooler. I alternated my position between ground level 
and a platform some distance up in a tree. In the absence of 
larger beasts, I watched ants carve up a large fly and spiders 
stalking butterflies. I also noticed that each slight change in the 
atmosphere and each change in my altitude brought about a 
meeting with a new community of insects. For a while, it was 
mosquitoes, then filaria flies, which drill holes that erupt in tiny 
geysers of blood when the flies have finished feeding. Next came 
tiny, orange, biting gnats. Rather than endure long pants in the 
heat, Thompson had opted for shorts and insect repellent. But 
he kept sweating the repellent off and was often too absorbed 
with picture-making to remember to apply another dose. Look- 
ing down from the tree, I saw that his legs had become a mass of 



i6o The Fate of the Elephant 


welts red as the poinsettialike leaf whorls of a liana growing at 
the clearing's border. 

After the gnats came equally small bees that didn’t sting but 
crawled all over my exposed skin, feeling no different from the 
dozens of gnats still there. Transpiring from every pore, I had 
become a salt lick — a saline — for bees large and small. Also for 
butterflies. At one stage, when I felt close to bursting blood ves- 
sels in this exasperating and eternal sauna, I realized that 1 was 
going to have to adapt mentally to my environment in fairly 
short order. I was all clenched up, as if called upon to defend 
against the thousand little insults to my flesh and endure until 
things got better. Things weren’t going to get better. This was 
how they were. Always. If I didn’t change my outsider’s stan- 
dards of comfort, I would become so worn down in a hopeless 
struggle to achieve them that I would be useless as a reporter 
within days. 

I wondered how long 1 would have to live here before I could 
be like the pygmies lying on their side beneath the tree, talkihg 
in whispers, oblivious to the insects. I lay down and wiped the 
layer of sweat and bugs off my face and arms a final time, then 
fought to close off my awareness of everything external. I think 
1 slept. Eventually, I felt a hint of coolness on my face. It was 
being fanned by dozens of butterfly wings. I sat up. The butter- 
flies scattered, then reassembled, sipping, fanning, fanning. I 
stared at the sky without seeing, cooled wing by fragile wing, 
and was overcome by a feeling of absolution. Somewhere, drift- 
ing down the river that fed into the Congo, a white-bearded 
missionary in a tattered white robe was perhaps staring at the 
same sky with much the same expression on his face. 

When it seemed that the air couldn’t possibly become more 
saturated, the sky burst. Fat raindrops began to drum on the for- 
est. The pygmies raced into the forest edge and returned holding 
umbrellas of palm fronds. I wedged myself into the crotch of a 
tree beneath a broad limb, hugging the main trunk like a damp 
monkey. After about half an hour, the downpour let up. Soon 
after that, nearly eighty elephants issued from the jungle at one 
end of the salines along with a herd of forest buffalo. Like forest 



Central Africa: Bayanga 161 

elephants, forest buffalo live in smaller social groups thayi their 
savanna counterparts and are physically smaller as well. In fact, 
they, too, are sometimes confusingly described as pygmy buf- 
falo. Another thing they have in common with forest elephants 
is that very little else is known about their home range and 
habits. 

While Thompson crept forward to make impressionist pho- 
tographs of elephants in the mist, I tried to sort out elephant 
groupings and keep track of interactions. But the afternoon was 
nearly gone, and the sky was growing darker by the moment. 
Thunder cracked straight over the clearing, rumbled, exploded 
again. An elephant screamed, and this time the sky opened up all 
the way. Even in a monsoon, I had never seen rain this thick. It 
descended in heavy sheets, dark and pounding, soaking us in- 
stantly. The whole sky had become a cascade. 

A pygmy shouted something in pygmy language to his com- 
panion, who shouted in Sango, the national tongue, to the vil- 
lager. He yelled in French about la deluge to Mike, who hollered 
to Thompson in English. I couldn’t make out what he said for 
the sound of rain and thunder, but I heard enough to guess that 
it had to do with crossing the stream between us and the camp, 
where we had left a tent and supplies. We had to get back before 
the water rose too high. I shouldered my gear and looked back 
once through the rain curtains into the clearing. A series of 
lightning strokes etched into my memory a tableau of milling 
elephants and buffalo. It seemed that there were more than be- 
fore, as if new ones were arising from the mixture of water and 
mud and taking life from the electrical discharges. 

We began to run downhill along the elephant paths toward 
camp. Within minutes, we slowed to a stagger. The trails, worn 
deep into the poor clay soil, had become torrents of red mud and 
water. Our march ended with a flashlight crossing of the stream, 
which had grown wider but, fortunately, not too much deeper. 
Once again, we encountered an elephant bull wading there. His 
eyes reflected our light. But he stayed where he was a few strides 
upstream, watching our procession. We slogged into camp, lis- 
tening to a gorilla drum on its chest in the distance, and began 



Ida The Fate op the Elbphant 


drying our dothes. Between sweat and rain, I would be drying 
them for the next month while worms and fungus hdped them- 
selves to my sodden feet. 


Not many miles from the salines was another site where ele- 
phants came in search of minerals. There, they had dug into the 
side of a hill, creating a small cave. Crawling into the opening 
on their knees, they would tusk away the clay to get at fresh soil 
on the sides and stretch out their trunks to dig at the very end of 
the narrow passage. This is probably how the famed elephant 
caves of Mount Elgon in Kenya began. But those caverns of 
hardened volcanic ash and pumice could stand up to tunneling, 
whereas this little hole in the jungle hillside was destined to col- 
lapse on itself in a heap of clay, possibly trapping an elephant in 
the process. Or us, Thompson and I agreed as he arranged a trip 
wire and camera at the tunnel’s farthest reach to record the giants’ 
nightly visits. 

On hikes around Dzanga-Sangha, we sometimes found 
where elephants had tom apart portions of fallen, rotted trees, 
again for pockets of minerals. We also occasionally came upon 
what appeared to be a round boulder resting on the dim jungle 
floor. Odd — there were no exposed rocks in this sediment-filleid 
basin for hundreds of miles. Odder $till, the sides of the boulder 
were rubbed smooth, and the ground for a short distance all 
around it was cleared of vegetation. The setting resembled 
that of a shrine, but Mike explained that these objects were old 
termite mounds used as salt licks by elephants. The mounds 
contained minerals concentrated by generations of termites har- 
vesting plant material and packing it home to their cities of day. 
One of the main food sources gathered by many termite colo- 
nies is the mineral-rich, haylike elephant manure that paves 
jungle paths and lies scattered throughout the forest. When ele- 
phants sought minerals from the mounds, they were once more 
recycling some of the same nutrients, closing the circuit. 

Relationships of this type emphasize how predous minerals 



Central Africa: Bayanga 163 


are in many lowland equatorial forests. They are precious be- 
cause they get leached out of the upper layers of the soil by 
pummeling rains such as we had endured almost daily. Silica- 
based compounds generally weather away the fastest, leaving 
mainly aluminum and iron hydroxides — the acidic, rust-red 
clay known as laterite, characteristic of many parts of the trop- 
ics. There is almost no organic layer, no humus, in this soil. A 
large percentage of the available nutrients remain locked up 
within the forest itself, cycling directly between one life form 
and the next. Competition for them is extremely intense. 

Rather than feed upon the poor soils, many plants feed di- 
rectly from other plants and from the decaying debris that ac- 
cumulates high up in the canopy. This — plus the lack of sunlight 
on the forest floor — helps explain the prevalence of parasitic 
fungi and plants such as vines or lianas, with aerial roots; and 
epiphytes, including ferns and orchids, that root on the trunks 
and branches of other plants. A solitary fruit fallen onto the 
ground may soon be scavenged by surface roots from nearby 
trees. In the hothouse climate, those tendrils grow almost while 
you’re watching, like science-fiction plants, rather quickly sur- 
rounding their vegetable prey to devour its nutrients before they 
are carried off by animals. Other roots snake along the ground 
capturing nutrients directly from leaf litter before they can dis- 
solve into the ground. 

Since the fertility of this ecosystem lies to such a large degree 
in its living cover, it follows that once you remove the rainforest, 
you remove the real wealth of the land. Yet that is precisely what 
developing nations around the globe are doing — practicing mas- 
sive destruction of their tropical woodlands and replacing them 
with agriculture and livestock ranching. This is a case of wholly 
inappropriate technology in the service of a doomed idea. 

The Kayapo Indians 1 met in the Amazon grow vegetable gar- 
dens on small plots within the still-intact structure of the jungle. 
They manage to do this by selectively burning certain forest 
plants to release their nutrients. For example, to plant maize, the 
Kayapo first soak the seeds in a growth-promoting extract taken 
from a wild forest plant, fell a palm and bum it on the ground, 



164 The Fate of the Elephant 

then sow die seeds along the strip of potassium-rich ash. These 
people have as many names for different kinds of ash residues as 
Eskimos have for snow and ice. They use old termite mounds to 
help mulch the soil. They also transplant mounds still occupied 
by certain species with strong-jawed soldiers to the borders of 
their garden, knowing that those termites will defend the area 
against species of leaf-cutting ants. That kind of integrated, 
finely tuned approach works splendidly. 

But slash-and-bum clearing on a larger scale as practiced by 
colonists from the outside only yields two or, at most, three 
years’ worth of crops before the minerals are exhausted and the 
cultivators are forced to move on to topple more forest. Because 
laterite lacks an organic layer, the increasingly barren, eroding 
ground is easily compacted into sun-baked hardpan. When 
trampled by livestock, it becomes bricklike all the sooner. 
Plowing is sometimes encouraged by agricultural advisors as a 
solution, but it only increases the rate of erosion and mineral- 
leaching from heavy rains. Large herds of livestock, like la(ge 
fields and plantations of single crops, are monocultures. They 
violate the basic principle of diversity in this environment, 
which is that success lies in being abundant yet scattered. 

Only now, late in the game, are scientists beginning to appre- 
ciate how rainforests work, how they may influence patterns of 
rainfall over a much larger area, and how they contribute to the 
global balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Only now are re- 
searchers such as Mike Fay beginning to reveal how much of 
the African jungle’s natural richness and complexity reflects the 
presence of elephants. Here, even more than in the savanna, the 
giants’ physical impact on their environment creates or main- 
tains niches for countless smaller, less powerful creatures. Cyclo- 
tis also play a leading role in dispersing the seeds of scores, 
possibly hundreds, of tree species, taking all the continent’s jun- 
gles as a whole. In sum, forest elephants are the very essence of 
a keystone species. Some biologists describe them as architects 
of the rainforest’s diversity. 

The basic elements of this architectural work are impossible 
to miss. As we made six-mile line transects through Dzanga- 



Central Africa: Bayanca i6$ 


Sangha to record elephant and lowland gorilla sign, hacking our 
way straight ahead with machetes, we were continually crossing 
and recrossing a dense network of elephant paths. And we 
sighed with relief each time one of the trails paralleled our course 
and we could stroll on it a while. It was like a broad, bare avenue 
scuffed free of all but the thickest roots. A better comparison 
might be to a high, wide tunnel through the encompassing walls 
of plant tissue. An assortment of tracks on these routes left clear 
evidence that they were major travel corridors for many of the 
jungle’s other large creatures. Gorillas made frequent use of 
them. So did bush pigs, giant forest hogs, buffalo, bongos, and 
the various duikers in the region — black-fronted, yellow- 
backed, blue, and Peter’s. Which was why leopards often liked 
to bide their time in branches overhanging the trails. 

In the course of foraging, elephants are able to push over some 
of the skinnier trees, creating minor openings in the canopy. But 
the typical mature rainforest tree begins from a massive, but- 
tressed base and soars upward like a cathedral pillar until it van- 
ishes in the green firmament high above. The biggest cyclotis is 
no match for it. Not unless the elephant begins to yank on one 
of the lianas reaching like twisted climbing ropes from the 
ground to the very top of the canopy. As it happens, forest ele- 
phants do that a lot. Lianas are one of their favorite foods. Quite 
a few of the vines and creepers are packed with tasty starch. Oth- 
ers belong to the legume family, highly sought after for their 
protein content. Nitrogen compounds are as scarce as most nu- 
trients in the rainforest’s soils, yet they are essential building 
blocks of protein. Leguminous plants have root nodules that 
contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The microorganisms bind free 
nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it to nitrates, which 
the plant in turn can convert to protein. 

Trees with a fully developed crown are quite top-heavy with 
the combined weight of their own foliage plus that of epiphytes 
and lianas. Since strong winds seldom develop within such 
dense forests, top-heaviness is not ordinarily a drawback — no 
more than is the tendency of many trees here to have fairly shal- 
low roots. However, when an elephant is pulling on one end of 



1 66 The Fate of the Elephant 


a liana, whole sections of the crown or, at times, the entire tree- 
top may snap off and fall. Or the tree itself may topple, perhaps 
carrying along one or two others trussed together by the same 
vines. If the elephant merely pulls down a liana alone, that still 
allows a good deal more light energy to filter through the can- 
opy than before. 

Mike estimates that about 10 percent of the forest elephant 
diet consists of bark. Just as in the savanna, giants seeking bark 
can strip away enough of the cambium layer to effectively girdle 
the tree, guaranteeing its demise. Lesser damage can still open 
the plant to invasion by insects, parasites, and diseases, which 
present more of a threat here than in drier climates. The point is 
that forest elephants remove trees in a number of ways, some 
faster than others, but in each case the result is the same: sunlight 
comes crashing down onto the damp jungle floor. 

The seedling of a rainforest tree faces a daunting challenge. It 
must somehow establish itself in the light-deprived depths of 
the forest floor, avoid being turned into a meal by passing ani- 
mals glad to find anything that hasn’t already grown out of 
reach, and then rise up for a hundred feet or more to where its 
leaves can compete for sunlight in the crowded canopy. The 
majority of the woody species here belong to the division of 
flowering plants known as dicots. As a rule, they are extremely 
shade-tolerant in their early growth stages, adapted to extract 
the most energy from low levels of light. At the same time, they 
produce high concentrations of compounds called secondary 
chemicals (primary chemicals being those needed for growth) to 
defend themselves against being eaten. 

The other main division of flowering plants is the monocots. 
These include grasses in all their various forms — bamboo being 
one of them — plus sedges, palms, lilies, and similar groups dis- 
tinguished by parallel leaf veins. Since monocots tend to be her- 
baceous plants rather than woody shrubs and trees, they are 
much easier for most animals to chew and digest. They generally 
offer more starch than dicots, as well. Equally important, mono- 
cots have lower concentrations of secondary chemicals such as 
toxic alkaloids. Overall, monocots are the preferred food of 



Central Africa: Bayanca 167 

grazers, such as the various forest antelopes, and of gorillas. And 
of elephants; herbaceous plants make up only a small percentage 
of forest vegetation but half the forest elephant’s diet. 

A key ecological difference between monocots and dicots is 
that monocots need more open, sunny habitats in order to 
flourish. In the rainforest, they are almost exclusively light-gap 
species. Like grasses and other herbaceous plants within north- 
ern woodlands, they are adapted to invade openings and prosper 
until the forest begins growing back high enough to shade 
them out. 

Some trees within the forest are always dying, if only of old 
age, leaving gaps here and there in the overstory. Floods, fires, 
disease epidemics, and insect infestations create other opportu- 
nities for the monocots. And because tropical Africa has a pro- 
nounced dry season, lasting up to four months, its rainforest has 
a more open canopy to begin with than, for example, the Ama- 
zonian rainforest. So it would be stretching things to say that 
monocots in this ecosystem depend upon elephants. On the 
other hand, if elephants were not in the equation, the monocots 
would not be nearly as successful, and the survival of a tremen- 
dous spectrum of animals, from minute insects to lowland go- 
rillas, depends in good part upon the success of these plants. 

Elephants not only create openings but enlarge existing ones. 
Initially attracted by a clump of succulent bamboo or palms, for 
instance, they may go on to pull down nearby lianas and strip 
bark from surrounding trees. They help maintain clearings 
through their grazing and trampling and also by tearing up 
roots, which account for another 10 percent of their diet. Such 
disturbances tend to keep the vegetation in a successional, or 
subclimax stage, staving off the trees’ efforts to reclaim the 
ground. 

Monocots are adapted to handle a fair amount of grazing pres- 
sure. Quite a few produce runners, or rhizomes, that allow a 
plant to spread vegetatively instead of relying solely upon seeds 
as many dicots do. Rhizomes are not roots but horizontal stems. 
They hold the growth nodes that produce new shoots. Thus, if 
an animal grazes down the vertical growth of a monocot, it does 



t6t Thb Fate op the Elephant 

not seriously harm the plant’s ability to produce more. The an- 
imal can even tear up lengths of the rhizome, and other parts will 
survive, having put down roots of their own. This is why mono- 
cots have less need to rely upon chemical defenses than dicots do. 
Rhizomes allow grasses to coexist with great herds of hooved 
animals on the African savanna. Not so very long ago, rhizo- 
matous grasses enabled tens of millions of buffalo, elk, mule 
deer, and antelope to graze the North American Great Plains 
year after year. For coping with foraging beasts of the jungle, 
the rhizome strategy works equally well. 

“Okay, grazers eat grasses and herbs; browsers eat shrubs and 
trees. That’s the traditional definition,” Mike said. “We’ve al- 
ways thought of forest elephants, gorillas, and most forest an- 
telope as necessarily being browsers because they live in the 
jungle. But if you define a browser as an animal that focuses on 
woody dicots and a grazer as a monocot specialist, I think you 
could argue that a number of animals here are essentially grazers. 
In the case of elephants, we’d better call them generalists, be- 
cause that’s what they are. But they’re doing more grazing than 
anything else. This is something of a new concept. It means that 
the difference in niches between forest elephants and savanna el- 
ephants, or between forest buffalo and savanna buffalo, may not 
be so great after all.” It also means that in much the same way 
that elephants in a place such as East Africa transform wood- 
lands to monocot-dominated grasslands, forest elephants help 
fashion the equivalent of savannas within the jungles they in- 
habit. 

The most direct beneficiary, at least in the Congo Basin, ap- 
pears to be the lowland gorilla. It prefers so many of the same 
monocot species elephants do that the two qualify as competi- 
tors. “Semicompetitors is a better way to describe them,” Mike 
told me while we inspected a recent feeding area. He pointed out 
one of the most common gorilla foods, Aframomum, a member 
of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. The base of each shoot con- 
sisted of new leaves still tightly rolled around a moist, starchy 
pith. The gorillas had stripped away the older leaves to get at this 
tender section, while the elephants had ripped up and munched 



Central Africa: Bayanga 169 


the thicker rhizomes. It was the same with another plant, called 
Megaphyrnium, of the family Marantaceae. Gorillas ate the basal 
portions of the shoots, and elephants went for the bulkier rhi- 
zomes, which probably contained even more starch but also 
more of whatever defensive chemicals this monocot did pro- 
duce. I tried the part the gorillas ate. It looked like an oversize 
version of a grass stem and tasted like a cross between that and 
celery. 

Chimpanzees also seek out certain monocots in forest clear- 
ings. Mike told me he believes that in the days before they be- 
came more tied to villagers, the pygmies, too, used to get much 
of their starch from clearings left in the wake of elephants. Meat 
was comparatively easy for this race of people to gather; starch 
was always the category of food in limited supply. Today, the 
pygmies trade meat for manioc, imported to equatorial Africa 
from South America in slaving days to provide a fast-growing 
source of starch. 

Later, Mike and I noticed where both gorillas and elephants 
had feasted on palm heart from a thicket of elephant-smashed 
raffia palms. The elephants had gone on to munch many of the 
leaves. They didn’t eat just any leaves, though — only the new- 
est, sweetest ones. Not far from the palms lay a modest-size tree 
that looked to have been snapped off by an elephant trying to 
drag down lianas. Although the tree was a dicot, the giant had 
eaten leaves from it as well. Yet it had once again chosen leaves 
from the younger sections. “Those have the least amount of 
coarse fiber and the fewest secondary chemicals,” Mike noted. 
“You can see that forest elephants don’t just rumble along 
through the jungle like bulldozers eating everything in their path 
that’s green. Even though they can have the effect of a bulldozer 
on the forest structure, they are very selective about which spe- 
cies they actually eat and which parts of those species.” 

I wanted to know how Mike was able to identify so many 
types of jungle foliage in the first place. “Pygmies, my man. 
Pygmies,” he answered. “Without them, my wife and I would 
still be doing vegetation plots and going crazy with plant tax- 
onomy manuals. Besides, those manuals don't even list all the 



170 Thb Fate of the Elephant 


plants in a place like this. I hadn’t been on this project long before 
I interviewed a pygmy named Bakembe. This one guy gave me 
at least ten times the data I'd gathered by myself up to that point. 
The pygmies know about 40 percent of the plants around 
Dzanga-Sangha, and I’d guess there are maybe 1500 species 
here. Minimum. They can pick out 400 different trees just by 
looking at the bark. That’s fantastic, and it’s really important.” 
He pointed overhead. “Check out where the leaves are; you’d 
need a rocket ship to get high enough to pull off a couple for 
identification. The timber company used to hire pygmies to pick 
out the commercial tree species for them by the bark. They’d go 
out in teams of two villagers and five pygs and the pygs would 
do all the work. As usual. They got paid 200 C. A.R. francs a day 
[about two-thirds of a U.S. dollar] and the villagers got 600.” 

Mike rolled his eyes and wiped away the blood from a thorn 
scratch. “Now,” he continued, “let’s take this monocot feeding 
site. I’d guess we’ve got about six species of Marantaceae. 
They’re reproducing vegetatively, so there are no flowering 
parts — none of the usual stuff identification manuals work with. 
But I can hand a pygmy a piece of a leaf, and he’ll know the plant 
instantly. Same when we’re on these transects looking for sign. 
I wouldn’t get a tenth of what the pygmy sees. I never do a tran- 
sect by myself. It would be an exercise in futility.” 


On this transect, we were guided by a pygmy named Mbutu. 
Mbutu was not at all wiry like most pygmies here but, rather, 
barrel-chested with thick, solid thighs. Mike often referred to 
him as the Truck. Two heads shorter than I, Mbutu could carry 
three times as much three times as far through the tangles, while 
doing most of the machete work — all the while telling me how 
pygmies in Cameroon can turn into elephants at night and swim 
across the river to steal babies from villages on the other side — 
and still pick out dozens of elephant droppings for every one I 
noticed. He could also age the recent ones with precision, know- 
ing the sequence in which mold and insects in this sauna world 



Cbntkal Apkica: Bayanga 171 

reduce a heap of droppings to a thin, porous pancake, usually 
within little more than three days. 

He never missed a beehive. Or a chance to shimmy up into the 
tree after die hive, which was usually hidden within a cavity. If 
he was unable to reach the honeycomb with his hand, he would 
poke in a stick to withdraw the golden syrup and lick it off. Go- 
rillas here obtain honey with precisely the same technique. 
Mbutu was the first to notice cubiform termite mounds ran- 
sacked by apes. Gorillas break them up to expose the protein- 
rich insects; chimpanzees are the ones that use sticks as tools to 
poke into entrance holes and withdraw termites a few at a time 
to lick them off. When Mbutu came upon the white feathers of 
a bird at the edge of a stream, he stuck them in his hair and 
primped and promenaded, laughing at himself. He laughed all 
the time with high, soft, musical notes. He talked about how go- 
rillas pointed to things with their chins, and he thought that was 
very funny. I would ask Mbutu where something was, and he 
would unconsciously point to it with his chin. 

Oops. Is this beginning to sound patronizing? Does describ- 
ing a pygmy acting like a gorilla set off all kinds of alarms about 
racial and cultural stereotypes? Good. I want to mention again 
that two kinds of prejudice are involved here. The first has to do 
with demeaning a fellow human by comparing him or her to our 
primate next of kin. Of course, it doesn’t work unless everyone 
involved assumes that gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and 
monkeys are inherently inferior to humans, and that is the sec- 
ond kind of prejudice. 

I point out that Mbutu got honey the same way gorillas get 
honey and chimpanzees get termites because that is what he and 
gorillas and chimpanzees did. I say he made a gesture like a go- 
rilla because he made a gesture like a gorilla. Mbutu would have 
been embarrassed to hear me tell it. Just as the villagers often 
speak of pygmies as chimps, the pygmies often describe vil- 
lagers as gorillas. Some are sure that when villagers die, they in 
fact come back to life as gorillas. I do not consider myself prej- 
udiced against any primate. As for Mbutu in particular, I often 
wished I were he. This man was the most inspiring mix of mus- 



17a Thi Fate op the Elephant 

cle and intellect I had met for a long time. Mike Fay was equally 
inspiring, but he was more a mix of intellect and sheer will- 
power. Together, they were turning this into an extraordinary 
trip. 

Typically, Mbutu was the first to hear and then see elephants. 
He led me silently through a thigh-deep bog to within perhaps 
forty feet of a feeding mother and her half-grown offspring, and 
I still couldn’t make out more than a tatter of grey here and there 
through the foliage. That encounter summed up a great deal 
about both the difficulties of research on cyclotis and the visual 
perspective of pygmies. Writing about the pygmies of the Ituri 
Forest, in Zaire, anthropologist Colin Turnbull told of taking a 
group of them out onto the savanna. When they saw elephants 
thousands of yards distant, the pygmies thought they were 
looking at very tiny elephants only a short way off, because in 
their world, the farthest anyone could see most of the time was 
about thirty feet. 

Yet inside that universe with a thirty-foot radius, a pygmy 
missed nothing. The quintessential newcomer, I was usually far 
too busy stumblebumming over roots and past webs of vines to 
spot an old rain-beaten elephant print, much less the duiker pel- 
lets and gorilla-bent plant stems Mbutu read in passing. A day- 
old trail of a porcupine would bring him screeching to a halt as 
if someone had laid a neon marker across the jungle floor. As we 
were walking along one grade, Mbutu pointed with his chin at 
an old elephant manure pile, lifted a hand toward a gorilla- 
opened termite mound in the fold between two buttresses of a 
tree, looked back at me to be sure I saw and learned, looked 
ahead again, and stopped cold. He began speaking in rapid 
pygmy, staring at the forest floor in total concentration. 

“Mike! Translation, please!” 

“Something . . . answered Mike, “He’s saying something 
is not right. Something happened here. Something . . . there 
was a fight.” 

I stepped closer and saw the same chaotic carpet of moldering 
brown and purplish leaves and wandering roots I had seen for 
miles. 



Central Africa: Bayanca 173 


“The leaves are pushed around. Yes, a fight/' 

Now I could see that the leaves had been moved. A bit of bare 
ground showed between several. Mbutu hunched over it warily. 

“Marks. Scuff marks. No, scratch . . . daw marks! Little 
claws. A squirrel. A squirrel was fighting. Something ...” 

With his eyes, Mbutu was following a path only he saw 
among the leaves, and he was tensed like a cat ready to leap. He 
took a step, another, and again stopped cold. He pointed with 
one hand and held the other up for caution. Again I found myself 
staring at leaf clutter and twisted roots. Then, as Mbutu pointed 
with a stick, I saw a pattern of diamonds exactly the same color 
as the leaves and a round eye edged with scales. It was the head 
of a rhinoceros viper. The body, thick as my upper arm and 
about five feet long, lay partly coiled like a root among the 
leaves. 

“Mbutu says this snake is slow because the squirrel is inside it 
now.” A few minutes farther along on our transect, Mike added, 
“Pygmies, my man. I’m telling you. Pygmies. The secret to sci- 
ence in this part of the world.” 

The next thing Mbutu picked out was a pomegranate-shaped 
fruit on the ground, which he handed me and indicated that I 
could eat. Elephants, along with gorillas, chimpanzees, pyg- 
mies, and assorted smaller primates all seek out the fruit of var- 
ious trees in this area. At times, they proceed from one fruiting 
tree to the next as if working a trapline, checking to see what has 
fallen to the ground since they were there last. Often, the canopy 
is too far above and the tree trunk too straight and unbranched 
to make it worthwhile for any of the great ape family members 
to climb up and try to pluck the fruits. But an elephant can speed 
up the rate at which fruits drop off by shaking the tree or butting 
it with its head. 

Seeds that germinate directly beneath the mature parent tree 
are fated to sprout in its shade and compete for precisely the 
same mixture of nutrients, a disadvantage for both parent and 
offspring. If new plants somehow succeed against the odds and 
join their parent to form a cluster, then they all become vulner- 
able to aggregations of their enemies for reasons previously dis- 



174 The Fate of the Elephant 

cussed. The ideal strategy for typical rainforest species is, to 
repeat the theme, being abundant yet scattered. How to solve 
the problem of dispersal in the relatively windless environment? 
The solution is to attach the seed to a mobile life form. 

Having coevolved with birds and mammals in the forest en- 
vironment for millions of years, the plants have developed ways 
of enlisting them to move seeds around. Just as the bright colors, 
perfumes, and nectars of flowers lure animal pollinators, seeds 
coated with fleshy, sweet-tasting tissues attract potential dis- 
persers. The seed and its supply of stored nutrients for germi- 
nation are termed the endocarp, commonly described as the pit, 
nut, or seed. This is enclosed within the mesocarp, which is the 
pulpy edible portion, while any skin or rind is the exocarp. A 
common strategy is to produce an endocarp hard enough to pass 
through the digestive tract of the fruit-eater. It will then emerge 
to germinate in a fertile pile of dung wherever the animal hap- 
pens to be when the urge strikes — preferably some distance 
from the parent tree by then. For that matter, a number of spe s 
cies have seeds that need to pass through some creature’s intes- 
tine and have the tough outer seed coat partly dissolved by 
gastric juices in order to germinate well. This is probably a 
means of ensuring that new plants do not grow up directly be- 
neath the parent tree and compete with it. 

Insects disperse a great many seeds by carrying them in their 
mouth parts. Beetles and ants probably pack the greatest num- 
ber around. Quite a few tropical plants are aerial germinators. 
Their seeds sprout up where the light and nutrients are, in the 
higher reaches of the forest, then send down rootlets to anchor 
themselves to the soil and tap its resources. Predominant among 
these are various figs. Ficus, the largest plant genus on the con- 
tinent. Ants give many of these their start. As a measure of the 
complexity of tropical ecosystems, the ants are often secondary 
dispersers. After a larger animal eats fig fruits that have fallen on 
the ground and deposits the seeds elsewhere in its droppings, the 
ants take the tiny seeds from the dung pile and haul them up into 
the treetops. The endocarp still retains a thin but very sweet 
coating called the aril, and this is what the ants are interested in 



Central Africa: Bayanga 173 

toting back to their colony. Bats and primates are also major dis- 
persers of aerial germinators. 

Different seeds are, in effect, designed with different animals 
in mind. For instance, the baseball-size fruit of a tree called gam- 
beya ( Chrysophyllum ) has a lozenge-shaped seed coated with a 
mucilaginous aril just made for slipping easily down the gullets 
of mammals from duikers on up through large primates and el- 
ephants. Generalists and opportunists, duikers not only search 
out fallen fruits but follow along below monkey troops, scav- 
enging half-eaten leaves, pods, fruits, and whatever other food 
is dropped or jarred loose from tree branches. Studies suggest 
that monkeys drop anywhere from a quarter to half of the food 
they handle. Mike said the forest duikers’ role as vacuum clean- 
ers was a little-known factor in the success of this ubiquitous 
group of small antelope. He also showed me where they had 
pawed apart elephant and gorilla dung to scavenge partially di- 
gested fruits of several varieties, notably those in the family Ir- 
vingiaceae. Knuckle prints near another elephant manure pile 
revealed where chimps had done the same. Mangabey monkeys 
and porcupines do this too, serving as additional secondary dis- 
persers. Bush pigs are perhaps even more effective scavengers of 
seeds in dung piles, but they crack the cndocarp and eat it. 

At another site, we came upon fruits of a tree Mike identified 
as Balanites, in the creosote family. Its pit was the size of an av- 
ocado. Even gorillas couldn’t have choked it down. It seemed to 
have been particularly designed with elephants in mind. Farther 
on lay a fruit as large as a basketball and considerably heavier, 
perhaps thirty pounds. Falling from a height of a hundred feet 
or more, it could take you out with a direct hit as surely as a viper 
could. “This baby is Treculia africana, in the fig family,” Mike an- 
nounced. “No hope of moving beyond the shade of the parent 
tree unless it gets broken up and transported by some big animal. 
Elephants and gorillas again.” Before that day was through, he 
led me past a few tree species whose flowers and fruits grew di- 
rectly from the trunk or lower branches, a condition known as 
cauliflory. One of the better-known species with this trait is the 
South American cacao tree, which produces the beans used to 



176 The Fate of the Elephant 

make chocolate. “I can’t be completely sure, but cauliflory cer- 
tainly looks like another adaptation to dispersal by big mam- 
mals,” Mike observed. “Once you take gorillas and elephants 
out of a community like this, the whole ecosystem begins to 
make less and less sense.” 

Because the African rainforest possesses a more open canopy 
to begin with than other rainforests, it has long supported a 
greater biomass of large animals, which in turn exerted a greater 
influence upon the variety and distribution of plant life. While 
the animals evolved more means of exploiting the food energy 
available from plants, the plants were evolving more efficient 
means of taking advantage of zootic, or animal, forces in the en- 
vironment. Over time, the two great divisions of the living 
kingdom became more and more closely bound to one another 
until they were resolved into an almost seamless whole. 

In the throes of a jungle fever, you might even be able to look 
at a gorilla and see a mobile, hooting, chest-beating package of 
plant material — minerals, starch, protein, partly digested leaves,, 
and expectant seeds — looking back through bright brown eyes. 
Or turn your blurred sight upon a bright little clearing of soft- 
leaved herbs surrounded by towering trees and sense millions of 
chloroplasts machining raw sunlight into starch molecules and 
flowers full of nectar and bees, and the bees churning out honey 
and the flowers metamorphosing into big, lozenge-shaped seeds 
enclosed by packages of fruit sugar . . . until you perceive a go- 
rilla in the making. Or maybe the fever has you so fast in its grip 
that you imagine some great pod arising from the green center 
of it all and unfurling to release a pygmy, glowing as if covered 
with phosphor. You might be closer to the essence of things than 
if you were forever cool-headed] y mouthing phrases such as 
“complex interrelationships favoring zootic dispersal mecha- 
nisms.” After all, the rainforest is no less magical for being so 
overwhelmingly complicated. 

Chief among the architects of that complexity, Loxodonta af- 
ricana cyclotis could alternately be known as one of the foremost 
perpetrators of jungle magic. I rummaged through an elephant 
dung pile at random and came up with the seeds of at least eight 



Central Africa: Bayanga 177 

different tree species. Mike said he doesn’t yet know what the to- 
tal number of species dispersed by elephants might be. He could 
list twenty from a single family, the Sapotaceae. He thought for 
a moment and decided he could list nearly as many from the Ir- 
vingiaceae. The pygmies are known to take fruits from seven 
elephant-dispersed tree species in that family, one for the me- 
socarp and six for the seeds themselves, which are laden with 
oil. The oil-rich nut of Panda oleosa is also dispersed by ele- 
phants and used by the pygmies, who grind it into a buttery 
paste. All this is in and around Dzanga-Sangha. Continent- 
wide, elephants may be involved in disseminating the seeds of 
as many as one-third of the trees in lowland tropical forests. 

What happens to Africa’s Irvingiaceae if elephants disappear? 
What happens to Balanites with its avocado-size pit made for 
elephant gullets? What happens to the scavenging duikers, 
the monocot-dependent gorillas, the pygmies that still tap the 
forest for provisions? The relationship of elephants with goril- 
las, chimps, and pygmies leads to another question. Considering 
the elephant’s key role in creating biological diversity within the 
tropical forest, plus its equally major role in the dynamic 
savanna-woodland balance, what influence might its kind have 
had on the long sequence of primate evolution that led to Homo 
sapiens ? Who planted the tree where our ancestors were born? 


The recent history of Dzanga-Sangha covers a broad spectrum 
of the relationships between elephants and humans in Africa’s 
tropical forests today. Early in the 1970s, poaching here was 
minimal. People shot animals protected by game laws, but 
everybody did that. The pertinent fact is that the killing re- 
mained more or less within the sphere of ordinary subsistence 
hunting by the local villagers and pygmies. Then the timber 
company came. The new logging operations didn’t harm ele- 
phants directly, as the cutting was very selective. It had to be; 
only a few tree species, such as African mahogany {Entandro- 
phragma), were valuable enough to cover the cost of transporting 



178 Thb Fate of the Elephant 

lumber made from them to foreign markets. The limited cutting 
may have increased elephant habitat by doing the same thing el- 
ephants themselves were: opening up patches of the canopy 
and encouraging the growth of successional plant communities 
dominated by monocots. Far fewer trees were felled for mer- 
chantable timber than in building roads to get at the prize trees. 

Yet that was precisely the problem: the new road access. The 
main route to the mill made Bayanga suddenly accessible to 
poachers from elsewhere in the nation. The countless smaller 
timber roads radiating outward from the mill served as an easy 
way into the jungle. At the same time, the timber operation was 
markedly boosting the number of villagers. Most of those who 
came from other regions to work at Bayanga promptly spread 
snare lines of their own to go with those of the original villagers. 
These outsiders were not very comfortable prowling through 
the dank gloom of real jungle, so they found the road grid par- 
ticularly helpful. To get meat from beyond the road network, 
they hired pygmies to hunt and trap for them. 

Even then, elephants were not being heavily hunted. System- 
atic commercial killing did not get under way until enough tim- 
ber workers were living in Bayanga that the government saw fit 
to establish outposts for the police and Department of Water and 
Forests. Other than the overseer of a coffee plantation in nearby 
Lindjombo, these functionaries had the first guns in the area ca- 
pable of bringing down elephants, and they began doling them 
out along with orders to bring back tusks. In other words, ele- 
phant poaching got serious only after the law arrived. 

“Here in Bayanga, we were always hearing the sound of guns 
from the forest,” a pygmy I’ll call Njoko (Elephant, in his lan- 
guage) told me through a translator. Njoko hunted elephants for 
an influential Arab trader, who provided a large-bore rifle. “He 
gave me five or ten bullets at a time. I could get maybe ten ele- 
phants in one week,” Njoko said. “He always promised to pay 
me, and then, when 1 brought the ivory, he would give me 
maybe some drink.” Moonshine, usually, the local, home- 
brewed white lightning. “Then the mayor of a big town came 
and shot an elephant and left it. The trader told me to go collect 



Central Africa: Bayanga 179 

the tusks for him and his bon frere the mayor. When I found the 
elephant, the ivory was gone. The Arab said I took it and told 
his bon frere the gendarme to arrest me. They beat me with the 
abanda [a flat piece of pipe with a wooden handle]. They beat my 
feet so badly I couldn’t walk right for six months. For the first 
three weeks, I had to crawl to go to the bathroom. They sent me 
to jail for a while in another town, but they let me go after not 
very long.” 

That mayor came down the new road to Bayanga to nail ele- 
phants whenever he could. A police chief came from the capital 
to hunt the giants. A minister of natural resources was caught 
with elephant guns at Bayanga; he was still minister when 1 vis- 
ited. Three different poachers had been caught using the local 
Bayanga prefect’s gun; he was still prefect. For years, the only 
real check on the slaughter was the fact that big guns were ex- 
pensive and restricted to ordinary civilians. Word of the good 
poaching conditions at Bayanga even drew shooters from the 
Republic of Congo. 

Mike and his colleague Richard Carroll, who was also study- 
ing lowland gorillas in the area, saw fewer and fewer elephants 
over the years. Only a handful of buffalo still appeared at the sa- 
lines where large groups used to come. Bongos were on the way 
out. Then Carroll conceived the idea of a joint project of the 
C. A.R. government and the World Wildlife Fund to protect the 
area. He, Mike, and various officials went on to outline a plan 
for a reserve that incorporated a number of existing economic 
activities. Rather than fashion an off-limits estate in the old semi- 
colonial park tradition, they wanted the reserve to function as an 
integral part of the resource base for local people. The result was 
the 1740-square-mile Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Reserve. 
Details of its final shape were still being worked out during my 
visit, but its guidelines were already in effect. 

‘‘Just in time,” Gustave Doungoube, codirector of the re- 
serve, had told me during an earlier conversation in Bangui. 
“Before, it was a no-man’s land. Our goal is to protect not only 
important animals and plants but the pygmy people who depend 
on the forest ecosystem.” 



t8o The Fate of the Elephant 

I had met Richard Carroll in Bangui as well, and he told me, 
“The government was interested right from the start. I think 
they see that the future of wildlife in the C.A.R. is now in the 
south, in the forest. And the pygmies needed a secure area. Their 
hunter-gatherer culture is changing awfully fast now that so 
many are living in permanent camps by the villages. The mis- 
sionaries round them up and put them to clearing the forest, 
growing crops, learning French — acting like villagers them- 
selves. We wanted to give the pygmies enough secure forest and 
wildlife so they could have at least a while longer to choose their 
way into another life, another economy.” 

As Carroll, Doungoube, and others have arranged this multi- 
use reserve, selective logging on a sustained yield basis will be 
permitted in certain areas. In other portions, safari operators can 
continue to offer hunts for select game, so long as they funnel 10 
percent of the safari fee to the reserve and half the trophy fee to 
the local community; the going rate for a bongo safari while 1 
was there was up to U.S. $30,000. Villagers can hunt and grow 
crops within a designated area. And the pygmies can hunt nearly 
everywhere, but only with traditional methods: spears, cross- 
bows, concealed pits, and the driving of game into nets. Two 
small core areas are to be left strictly undisturbed by human ac- 
tivities. No elephant hunting is permitted anywhere in the re- 
serve, not even by pygmies, who have always taken elephant 
meat as opportunity permitted. A buffer zone along lengths of 
the reserve’s borders is designed to avoid bumping directly up 
against areas with no restrictions on exploiting the forest. 

The elephants had quickly returned — in fact, so quickly and 
in such numbers that it seemed many of the giants had escaped 
shooting and merely abandoned the area temporarily to seek 
safer stretches of forest. On the other hand, Mike thought the 
increase might have been the result of elephants fleeing to 
Dzanga-Sangha from a newly logged portion of the Congo not 
far to the east. In any case, the challenge now was to keep them. 

An Arab businessman went elephant hunting near Bayanga 
with a pygmy guide. A gorilla charged the pygmy, who was 
leading. It might have been a bluff charge; these things usually 



Cbntkal Africa: Bayanga 181 


are. But the Arab tried to shoot the gorilla, and he hit the py gm y 
in the stomach. The pygmy died shortly afterward. That was 
only a couple of weeks before I arrived. And soon after I settled 
in, a safari operator discovered a fresh elephant carcass near Ba- 
yanga. Other reports of elephant hunting continued to surface, 
but most of it seemed to be on the reserve’s periphery. The real 
ivory fever had broken for the time being. 

Around noon one day along the road toward the salines, I en- 
countered two seedy-looking moottjus and a huge African sitting 
by their vehicle sweating and sucking on beer. Not to jump to 
conclusions, but this trio somehow did not look as though they 
were here out of dedication to nurturing biological diversity. 
They gave me a cold beer, and we chatted a while. The French- 
men were safari operators from the north; the African, a high 
official from Bangui. The Frenchmen were trying to convince 
the official that he should create an extra safari concession at 
Dzanga-Sangha and give it to them. They wanted permits to 
hunt a few gorillas and elephants and perhaps build a tourist 
lodge overlooking the salines. I took it as an ominous sign of 
possible things to come that would have less to do with pro- 
moting genuine eco-tourism than promoting disturbance to 
pocket more francs. 

Most of the families in Bayanga still poached with snare lines. 
Many still employed pygmies to bring in meat as well. The vil- 
lage was doing more than feeding itself. It was looting the jungle 
to supply smoked monkey and duiker to several villages farther 
north. The situation would have been worse had not Slovenia- 
Bois gone broke and a lot of workers left for the diamond fields 
or other timber jobs. Mike worried about what would happen 
when logging got rolling again under a different multinational 
company, which had bought out Slovenia-Bois’s timber con- 
cession. 

“The problem is that we have a budget for ten rangers and six 
trackers,” Gustave Doungoube had explained. “To cover the 
area set aside, we should have forty-two rangers and sixteen 
trackers. We will manage somehow. It is important to make this 
work. The Peace Corps is contributing through a program to 



182 The Fate op the Elephant 


educate the pygmies about the reserve. The pygmies need to un- 
derstand which areas they can hunt in and why they are asked to 
leave the animals alone in certain zones/’ 

When 1 was with pygmies in one core area, they showed me 
how to call in a duiker with a series of nasal, catlike yowls. This 
was the call made by a female duiker giving birth, they said, and 
other duikers in the area were attracted by it. The pygmy imi- 
tation worked. Duikers sometimes came to within a few feet of 
us. The pygmies understood that they were not to take such an- 
imals as prey, at least not when Mike was around. But when they 
grabbed a tortoise wandering along the forest floor and Mike 
tried to tell them why they weren’t to kill creatures of that kind 
either, they looked at him in such amazement that Mike just 
laughed and turned to me, saying, “You explain it to them, 
okay?’’ 

Peace Corps volunteer Anna Kretsinger had been taking 
pygmy children from Bayanga on nature outings, if you can call 
taking pygmy children into the forest that. To teach them the vi-* 
tal roles even animals as small as insects can play in the suste- 
nance of a rainforest, she had them collect a variety of butterflies 
and termites. Unfortunately, before she got the specimens back 
to Bayanga for study, the kids had eaten quite a few of them, she 
told me. Her tale brought to mind the efforts of New Guinea 
explorer William MacGregor. High up among the mountain 
meadows of the interior, he collected three species of birds un- 
known to science. Two of them were to remain unknown for a 
while longer, since MacGregor’s assistant, one Joe Fiji, had them 
for dinner. I don’t imagine things would turn out much differ- 
ently if someone speaking a strange tongue came through Mon- 
tana and enlisted me and my friends to help collect specimens of 
local trout and morels. 

IS151SISISISISISISISIS1S15 

Mike wanted to survey elephants and gorillas in another expanse 
of rainforest some distance to the east of Dzanga-Sangha. Be- 
fore leaving, he needed to gather some gear from a camp near 



Central Africa: Bayanga 183 

Lindjombo, the little riverbank town by the defunct coffee p lan - 
tation. Thompson went with him. Upon arrival, they were 
obliged to check in with the local gendarmes. Two of them 
waited at the local guard post, and both were drunk. Imagine a 
couple of tie-dye hippies arriving in Cowboy Boot, Wyoming, 
on Saturday night, or a pair of urban African Americans running 
into the archetypical southern sheriff of Redneck, Alabama, 
while he is juiced. Now here come the mootiju elephant boys to 
meet two drunken goons who had not had anybody to mess 
with for many a hot day at the end of the world. Thompson had 
forgotten his passport and sobn found a more malevolent level 
of hell than any Bangui visa office. Happily, after much dispute 
and a short stay in jail, Mike’s experience — and connections to 
higher levels of government — got the crew out and back to 
Bayanga. 

To reach the other forest area, we had to retrace part of our 
route to Bayanga in the Toyota. We were scarcely under way 
when we passed a car full of Water and Forest guards returning 
to Dzanga-Sangha. They told us that bandits had been shooting 
up vehicles on the roads again, worse than before. A young 
American woman who worked with Anna Kretsinger, the Peace 
Corps volunteer with the pygmy nature club, had been shot in 
the arm during the robbery. Others had been killed. Farther 
down the road, in Nola, we asked how the bandit situation 
looked. A man pointed toward the highway and said, “ C’est le 
feu la-bas ” — it’s a fire there. People said at least six or seven cars 
and trucks had been shot up in the last couple of days. Given the 
sparse traffic on C.A.R. roads, that was probably most of the 
vehicles that appeared to be carrying anything valuable. 

We bought supplies from the market, where a pretty young 
bare-breasted woman watched us with an unshakable smile. She 
was shackled to the platform where she sat. An insane woman, 
we were told; the shackles kept her from wandering off into 
trouble. Then some kind of official, whose tide I never got clear, 
came out of a fruit stall and began shouting at Mike, demanding 
to see Mike’s permit for ‘‘his” pygmy, meaning Mbutu. Mbutu 
was lying in the back of the Toyota with me, eating mangoes 



184 Thb Fate of the Elephant 


from the market. The Big Man yelled again; but people here had 
few inhibitions about shouting at each other in public, and I no 
longer paid much attention to it. I was thinking that this was the 
best mango I had tasted lately. 

While Big Man hollered, 1 contemplated the Irvingiaceae. 
This family includes Irvingia gabonensis, called the bush mango. 
Elephants eat the fruit and disperse the lozenge-shaped seed. 
People eat the fruit as well but prefer the common mango, such 
as I was slurping up now. The common mango belongs to an en- 
tirely different family. It originated in Asia and was brought to 
Africa only recently as an exotic. Yet it has an almost identical 
structure: a sweet, pulpy, fibrous mesocarp surrounding a large, 
lozenge-shaped seed. The fruit represents a striking case of con- 
vergent evolution, and one perhaps simpler to explain than 
most, for the common mango, the fruit half the people walking 
the streets and paths of the C. A.R. appeared to be munching on 
at any one time, had also evolved with primates and elephants in 
mind, but Asian primates and Asian elephants. * 

Mike finally told Big Man to stuff it. Big Man smoldered 
away down the street, and we stormed off in our Toyota, with 
Mike muttering about the absurdity of the affair: “My pygmy, 
he says, like people own pygmies. Mbutu’s one of the best 
friends 1 have in this country. Besides, Mbutu wanted to come. 
His wife was giving him hell around home. Why should pyg- 
mies need permits to move around and do what other citizens 
do? I know, it’s partly to keep someone from packing off half a 
pygmy tribe and forcing them to work for him somewhere. But 
it’s nuts, because pygmies were here long before the Bantus. 
Pygmies are the original inhabitants.’’ 

After checking in with a district official and the Department 
of Water and Forests office to tell them of our survey plans, we 
saw the day giving out on us and decided to spend the night at 
Nola. A couple of women came by, insisting that we party with 
them, but we crawled into my tent, pitched beside the local 
Water and Forests chief’s house, and listened to distant music 
and barking dogs until we fell asleep. 

Another morning, another official. Then, at last, we were on 



Central Africa: Bayanga 185 

the road again. Hours later, we turned off a narrow dirt route 
and beheld a strange sight: a superhighway of dirt, wide as a Los 
Angeles arterial and straight as a grand canal. It was an African 
Development Bank road, bulldozed through one of the last 
stretches of undisturbed jungle like the trans-Amazonian high- 
way. Intended to link the capital more directly to the western 
part of the country in order to encourage development, it was 
about two-thirds finished. Already, pygmy camps had sprung 
up along the strip between the roadside and the jungle, dusted 
with the passing of each giant dumptruck and log hauler. The 
pygmies were hunting meat for villages that used to be days 
away but were now just hours distant on the completed portion 
of the highway. 

The road ended in a pack of bulldozers and earth-moving ma- 
chines, any one of which would have dwarfed an elephant. A 
river lay ahead, awaiting construction of a ferry. For now, the 
little village of Bambio was the end of the line. We introduced 
ourselves to the mayor, Albert Essengamobe, who oversaw 
three village chiefs. He welcomed us and invited us to his house 
for dinner, honoring us with a chicken. Long remote, Bambio 
still had the quiet feel of a real community once night fell and the 
bulldozers’ roar faded. There was none of the litter, hustle, and 
shouting racket of a large roadside town like Nola. But it was 
headed that way. Mayor Essengamobe told us that his village 
was unraveling. The young men were leaving for bigger places 
and bigger money. Road-builders were chasing Bambio’s wom- 
en. And they had guns, some of these builders, which was 
worrisome. 

Mayor Essengamobe wasn’t seeing the kind of wild game he 
used to see. No one was. And yet elephants had been raiding 
some fields 1 . 8 miles from Bambio, making off with pineapples, 
mangoes, papayas, and corn. It was just one group of six to eight 
animals, the mayor said, but no one had seen elephants here for 
a long time. He and Mike agreed that they were probably refu- 
gees from new logging and hunting in the portion of the Re- 
public of Congo close by to the south. 

Mike requested the mayor’s help in obtaining a group of 



1 86 The Fate of the Elephant 


pygmy porters, as we were going to hike through the forest to 
do transects for a number of days. The mayor sent the word out. 
All the pygmies ran away into the jungle. Mike explained to the 
mayor that he intended to pay the pygmies for their labor. The 
next morning, we found a crowd of them outside our hut along 
with a big villager named Alfred. Alfred informed us that these 
were his pygmies and that he would accept the money and dole 
it out to them, keeping a portion for himself, naturally. Mike 
hired seven pygmies and Alfred as a sort of foreman and made it 
clear that they would be paid at the end of our journey. Our des- 
ignated gang ran off to pick up a few items from their homes, 
and a couple managed to get a little drunk before they returned 
and we marched off into the forest. 

To be certain that each transect was exactly six miles, Mike 
wore a spool of fine thread of known length attached to his waist 
and let it play out behind him while he charged ahead along a 
straight compass line, pausing only to change spools. I nearly 
collapsed of heat prostration trying to keep up that first day. T 
wasn’t in bad physical condition, but I wasn’t in really great 
shape either, and I definitely wasn’t getting nearly enough water 
to keep up with the rate at which I was losing it. My main fear 
was getting separated from the rest of the party. It wasn’t even 
a very rational fear, since the pygmies could probably have cir- 
cled back and found me handily. Still, every time I stopped to 
rest or wandered off a bit to investigate something and then 
looked up to find the others out of sight and no trace of Mike’s 
string to guide me out of the labyrinth, an awful feeling of vul- 
nerability welled up within me. In other kinds of wilderness, I 
go out of my way to trek alone. Here, I felt wholly out of my 
element and easily disoriented by the dark, immanent green and 
the absence of sky. Also by the stings, bites, and scratches that 
struck and struck again. Worse, I knew that my sense of help- 
lessness was partly justified, because I had no more clue as to 
what to avoid than I did as to what I could eat and use to survive 
if left on my own. Even Mbutu, the all-seeing jungle Truck, 
had come within inches of stepping on a banana viper earlier in 
the day. 



Central Africa: Bayanga 187 

I would brush an ordinary branch amid the green profusion 
and suddenly be covered with ants whose bites made my skin 
swell so violently that blood oozed out my pores. I would duck 
under a liana and find myself in a flood of army ants and have to 
trot on, stamping hard with each step to keep from being over- 
whelmed. At times, I could hear columns of ants or of termites 
feeding nearby, a dry, rustling sound that pervaded my thirty- 
foot-radius universe. I took it as a reminder that in this ecosys- 
tem, the biomass of all the megafauna combined was minuscule 
compared to that of these social insects. Elephants and our 
search for them seemed to diminish accordingly. Only the wood 
and leaves and countless rustling little bodies mattered; only the 
growing and the chewing, the decaying and growing again mat- 
tered. I was a soft, succulent mass of tissue, a trove of scarce nu- 
trients invaded by everything that bit, drilled, wormed, sucked, 
and licked. 1 had found ways to cope with that feeling of being 
under constant attack, but sometimes my tolerance evaporated. 
Sometimes at Dzanga-Sangha I would crawl into my tent and 
kill every damned thing that crawled in with me and just sit 
there, not being eaten for a while. Sometimes in the jungle I felt 
as if 1 had already been swallowed and was slowly being digested 
and absorbed. 

We saw precious little sign of big animals that first day. Eve- 
ning met us at an old pygmy hunting camp on a steep hillside 
above a clear stream, where we bathed and drank quart after 
quart of water. Pygmy huts are domes roughly the size of a dog- 
house, made of woven branches with broad leaves laid over 
them. Although an entire pygmy family will squeeze into a sin- 
gle such hut, I could not find room to stretch out in any of them 
and so slept again in my dome tent with Thompson and Mike. 
The pygmies curled near the fire, keeping far enough back to 
avoid its heat, while the night animals called to each other. 

The second day was easier. My body had decided to match the 
pace after all. Better yet, the pygmies began to encounter more 
jungle groceries. That meant more rest stops; because at the first 
hint of wild food, the pygmies threw off their improvised 
manioc-flour-sack packs and went racing off after it, and Mike 



188 The Fate of the Elephant 

knew better than to try and stop them. The flight of bee squad- 
rons led to honey, which had to be chopped free of a tree cavity 
up in the branches with machetes. Faint trails would lead to the 
underground burrow system of a giant forest rat. One man was 
stationed at each exit hole with a club or machete while another 
probed into the burrows with a long stick until the rodent pan- 
icked and tried to flee. Wham. Back to the transect. Porcupine 
trails led to fallen logs that were also probed and pounded until 
the animal emerged. Wham. To the transect again. In between, 
there were mushrooms and coco leaves ( Gnetum africams, a gym- 
nosperm unrelated to cacao or chocolate but laden with protein) 
to be gathered. 

Sign of larger animals picked up as well. We saw several ele- 
phant dung piles and trails, though none were as fresh as the evi- 
dence of gorilla feeding we noted. Until midday, we shared the 
feeling that we were about to come into megafauna territory 
now that we were pushing deeper and deeper toward the core of 
this tract of forest. But by afternoon, we saw that the elephant 
sign was no fresher and no more abundant than before. Even 
duiker sign had peaked out at an impoverished level. More tell- 
ing yet, bounties of fruit — gambeya, Treculia, Balanites, various 
Irvingiacea — lay in putrefying heaps beneath the trees, unhan- 
dled, undispersed, writhing with ants. 

We came upon a large pygmy camp with poles for hanging 
and skinning game, racks for smoking the meat, storage huts, 
and scattered shotgun shell casings. “You’ve seen our guys in ac- 
tion. They don’t miss a single rat. Pretty damn hard for them to 
miss elephant sign,” Mike said. “Now imagine thirty of them 
camped here hunting steadily for two months with a villager di- 
recting them. They can clean the place out. French and Lebanese 
timber companies have built roads to the opposite side of the 
forest, where we’re headed, and what used to be a four-day trip 
to Bangui is now a matter of hours. This place is already getting 
stripped to supply markets there, and they’re planning to go 
ahead and extend the logging all through the area we’ve been 
surveying. I don’t see much future for elephants here, do you?” 

That night, we camped where dark overtook us. I was badly 



Central Africa: Bayanga 189 

dehydrated again, and everyone was thirsty, as we had failed to 
find the stream that the map indicated we should have crossed by 
now. Mike said something to Mbutu, and the pygmies disap- 
peared into the night with water containers. They returned with 
all of them full, having extracted the water from a vine in the 
grape family whose enlarged transport vessels held quantities of 
it. “They also know a couple of different trees in the fig family 
to use for water,” Mike informed me. “They cut the aerial roots 
and sharpen them to a point and let that drip into a container 
overnight.” We dined on giant forest rat and manioc, our staple, 
drowned in a gravy of coco leaves and peanut butter. The pyg- 
mies also had grouselike francolin meat and hard-boiled eggs. 
One of them had clubbed the bird, gathering up her body and 
the eggs she was incubating, almost without breaking stride. 

Though a stronger hiker than I, Thompson was suffering 
constantly from an accumulation of insect bites and footworms. 
His body reacted violently to the attacks, swelling into welts, 
rashes, and suppurating wounds, as if his overloaded immune 
system was gyrating out of control. It was hard to find a 
normal-looking patch of skin on his body. On his cheek was an 
especially angry blot of rash that Mike thought might have come 
from being brushed by the wing of a particular moth. “They’re 
toxic,” he told us. “A guy I know had one fly into his eye around 
the campfire. That eye of his turned into a real mess.” Looking 
across the fire, I found myself staring into the milk-white eye of 
one of the porters. His problem was river blindness, a common 
affliction caused by worms. He was convinced the cause was 
witchcraft. He never ate the mushrooms his companions gath- 
ered. They looked too much like his pale, ruined eye, and he 
feared they would turn his good eye the same way. 

My worst scare had come one night when I began rubbing my 
eyes and brow to mop off sweat and felt a stinging, burning sen- 
sation. The harder I rubbed them, the worse they stung, and it 
became difficult to see. Before long, half my face was on fire, 
and I was growing a little panicky, until my companions pointed 
out that 1 had been cutting up dried chili peppers for dinner. Hot 
ones. All I’d been doing was transferring capsicum, the active 



190 Thb Fate of the Elephant 

ingredient, from my hands to my face while wondering which 
virulent little jungle organism had gotten hold of me this time. 
I laughed and looked up to see a single star showing through the 
trees, wondered at it, and laughed some more, the perfect ex- 
ample of a happy idiot. 

On day three, we awoke, as usual, to the hum of hundreds 
upon hundreds of bees. Drawn by scents of food and perspira- 
tion, they coated our campsite like a yellow film. These were Af- 
rican killer bees, whose aggressive behavior, sensationalized by 
the press, was something they exhibited mainly in defense of 
their hives. Around camp, they were merely a nuisance, unless, 
like Screwy Louie, the occasional sting was enough to send you 
into anaphylactic shock. How Louie survived was beyond me. 
Even after I learned to move very slowly; to dress only after 
shaking each shoe, pant leg, and sleeve; never to reach into a 
food bag without first giving the bees foraging there time to es- 
cape, I still couldn’t avoid the occasional mistake. Just wiping a 
brow or taking a bite of food without forethought would lead to 
a sting. 

All morning, we passed through the innermost sanctum of 
this forest. Still, we encountered no fresh elephant sign and only 
sporadic, weathered evidence of gorillas, and still the fruits lay 
rotting beneath the trees. This land was being emptied of all 
animal life that was large, dappled, striped, curious, thought- 
ful, and kindred. By afternoon, Mike snipped loose his last tran- 
sect string for the day. We moved from our straight-line route 
onto footpaths through the forest. Originally kept open by ele- 
phants, they now looked maintained by human feet. Bright-red 
plastic casings from shotgun shells used to bring down monkeys 
showed up at shorter and shorter intervals along the trail. Many 
of them marked cable snares tied to bent saplings off to one side. 
Several trap sites held signs of recent struggles, with the leaves 
all scraped away and the bare earth scored by the small, pointed 
hooves of duikers. One of the pygmy porters got caught in a 
snare laid across the trail and disguised beneath tamped dirt. We 
encountered a pygmy woman with a nursing baby and a long- 
handled, spoon-shaped instrument for digging up starchy tu- 



Central Africa: Bayanga 191 

bcrs. Her husband joined her. He wore only a loincloth, and he 
carried a well-worn crossbow and a charm on his wrist for good 
luck in his use of the weapon. 

The family directed us to their camp, and we arrived in late 
afternoon. The camp was fairly large and wonderfully situated 
on the edge of a broad clearing that was a mixture of sandy 
meadow and marsh. Breezes blew through this piece of savanna. 
Breezes! I sat with my eyes shut, savoring the wind, while Mike 
and Alfred spoke with the pygmies. They were mostly women 
and children and old men. Some of the children’s toes were 
badly deformed by chigoes, parasitic insects that lay eggs under 
the toenails and in cracks in the skin. Their populations seem to 
build up to problem levels wherever campsites remain occupied 
for a long period. All the younger men were off hunting, the 
camp-tenders said. What were they hunting? Elephants. 

They explained that of all the elephants that once lived in the 
forest, only five or six remained, and they had been using this 
place, feeding in palm groves at the edge of the marsh. The pyg- 
mies had been taking palms from the same groves to make wine. 
A villager had come and given the pygmies a gun. They had 
wounded an animal, and now they were tracking it. No one 
knew when they would be back. The villager would be angry if 
the bullets for his big gun had been wasted, for they were very 
expensive. 

The stream we had been seeking trickled past one end of the 
savanna into a pool. The direct afternoon sun felt overpowering 
after the jungle shade, and the short, burning hike to the pool 
made the plunge into its water all the more delicious. We and the 
pygmies and the villager whooped and washed ourselves, then 
our clothes, and then simply lay in the water, unwilling to do 
anything more. 

“Well, boys,’’ Mike said after a while, “we finally found 
where the elephants are.” 

“Yeah,” I said. “We’ve been going through jungle most 
people would consider as wild as it gets. And it looks as wild as 
it gets. It’s pure, uncut, unsettled rainforest, and it doesn’t have 
an elephant left in it. Amazing.” 



192 Thb Fatb of the Elephant 

“It is amazing,” Mike agreed. We floated in silence for some 
time before he spoke again. “You know, I’m a fanatic fly fish- 
erman. That got me into entomology, and entomology drew 
me into other fields of science. I already knew I was going to be 
a scientist. I knew back when I was seven or eight years old. 
In Pasadena, California. 1 remember breathing that California 
smog and my chest hurting like hell one day, and I decided then 
and there that I was going to be outdoors all my life. Way out- 
doors. Here I am.” He shook his head and sahk lower in the 
water. “And we’re going to lose this, too. Yes, indeed, it’s amaz- 
ing. We’ve actually succeeded in destroying the earth in barely 
half a century without really trying.” 

“How am I ever going to write this story?” I said. “I don’t 
even know what it’s about anymore, except seeing things dis- 
appear. Maybe I’ll turn in a story with one sentence: Forget it, 
the elephants are screwed. The title will be . . . what? ‘Here at 
the End of the World’?” 

“How about ‘I Was a Pygmy Love Slave in Mike Fay’s Jungle 
Hell Camp’?” Thompson offered. 

“ ‘The True Tale of the Transect: Fay Can’t Find Crap.’ ” 

“How about ‘Researcher Sought in Murder of Two Useless 
Journalists at Remote Jungle Campsite’?” 

Through much of the night, the pygmies sang, played a lyre- 
like instrument and another with a small keyboard of metal 
prongs, and danced beneath the soft moonlight. The next morn- 
ing, Fay did find crap — fairly fresh elephant dung and tracks 
along with it after an elderly pygmy led us to the palm groves 
through a light, hot mist. Later in the morning, the hunters re- 
turned, and a villager emerged from the forest. He went into a 
pygmy hut and returned carrying a large-caliber rifle, 9.3- 
millimeter. Anger clouded his face, and I thought the situation 
might get tense in a hurry. As it turned out, he was suspicious 
of us, but his wrath was directed toward the pygmies. They had 
shot all seven bullets he had left with them, wounded three dif- 
ferent elephants, and failed to recover any despite tracking one 
for three days. 

“A couple of things pygmies aren’t very good at sometimes,” 



Central Africa: Bayanga 193 

Mike said quietly while we watched the scene unfold at the 
camp. “One is tracking gorillas when they’re stoned on mari- 
juana. They think they’re great, but they’re lousy. Number two 
is shooting big guns. A lot of them just can’t handle the things.*’ 
After wandering back and forth for some time, the villager 
strode away down the savanna and out of view. Alfred, the vil- 
lager who had accompanied us, mentioned that he himself had 
been planning to come here and hunt these last elephants but had 
changed his mind when we arrived and decided to go with us. 
Now he was glad of his choice, for at least he was sure to earn 
some money from this trip. Usually, he said, he went to Bayan- 
ga to hunt elephants. 

Mike had been cagey about explaining exactly what he was 
doing, emphasizing his role as a scientist while downplaying any 
connections with officialdom and game conservation. That was 
perhaps why we never tangled with the gun-toting villager, and 
it was part of why Alfred spoke so freely. A more telling reason 
is that poaching was so open in this part of the world that no one 
bothered to conceal it anyway. 

Toward noon, we traipsed off toward a village quite a few 
miles distant, following a series of sandy savanna clearings. Buf- 
falo tracks crossed the path at intervals, scores of them. Else- 
where, clumps of bushes related to the pawpaw grew from the 
sand, and we gorged on the ripening fruits. In the heat of the 
afternoon, we approached a solitary hut in the center of a long, 
shimmering savanna. Outside the hut was a rack for drying buf- 
falo meat. The hut itself was aswarm with insects of every de- 
scription, and lying against one wall in the shade was a man, as 
small and wizened a pygmy as I had yet seen. His legs were like 
strips of biltong, or jerked meat, and his eyes seemed to gaze 
past us into the vacant white sky. Covered with flies and bees, he 
remained silent while we poked briefly around the camp and 
continued on. 

“I feel like we just arrived from the starship Enterprise ,” Mike 
said. 

I had been feeling almost exactly the same thing, thinking that 
I could not remember a scene quite so terminal and forlorn. A 



194 Tib Fatb of thb Elephant 

mile or so afterward, we saw a square, bulky object ahead on the 
sand among die scattered grasses. It was Mike's backpack. 

“Hmmmm, and what do you make of this, Spock?” 

I shook my head, but Mike pieced together the mystery. One 
of the pygmies had learned that there was palm wine to be had 
somewhere nearby and passed the word. The pygmy carrying 
Mike’s pack had dropped it at once and run off for his share. 

“At least some of this planet’s inhabitants seem to be highly 
active,” I noted. 

“He’ll be back for the pack,” Mike shrugged, and we trudged 
on. Evening found us and the pygmies soaking in water again. 
The stream was wide, stained with tannin to a color like black 
pearl, sandy-bottomcd, with a solid current, and women gath- 
ered to wash manioc in the side pools. At nightfall, we were 
pitching my tent next to the headman’s house in a village where 
people strode up and down through the central courtyard shout- 
ing their opinions about the shooting of someone across the 
river. 

We were not far from the new logging area. Mike said he 
had seen a map in the Republic of Congo showing a grid of 
projected logging roads for timber concessions sold to foreign 
corporations. They covered the better part of the country’s rain- 
forests. Similar plans were being laid in portions of Cameroon. 
And Gabon, where new roads for oil development were already 
pushing farther into the backcountry. Gabon, the stronghold of 
tens of thousands of forest elephants, was where the director of 
wildlife and forests was recently busted as part of an interna- 
tional ivory poaching ring that involved Senegalese and Viet- 
namese with French citizenship. The killing was becoming 
multinational, like other forms of economic exploitation. This 
was not sustained development. It was much the same old pat- 
tern of foreign powers plundering raw materials from Africa’s 
interior. True, the governments stood to make something in the 
short term from auctioning off their resources wholesale. Yet 
the serious money, what economists would call the value-added 
profit, gained from processing the materials and selling die fin- 
ished products, was being made, as ever, outside the continent. 



Cbntral Africa: Bayanga 195 

Suppose Africa’s cyclotis all but vanished in the process, I re- 
flected. The rainforest wasn’t going to fall apart. It wasn’t even 
going to change dramatically right away, despite the many ef- 
fects elephants have upon species structure and distribution. 
Hardly anyone knew what these were anyway. Who, then, but 
a score of experts like Mike — and the pygmies, of course — 
would ever notice the subtle declines in various trees or obscure 
monocots? A change in the density of gorillas and duikers? 
These and other life forms would gradually become a little less 
than they were before, unperceived and unmoumed. Only after 
many generations would the forest itself begin to disintegrate 
enough to reveal gaps obvious to all. 

But by then it will hardly matter, for chances are that the jun- 
gle in question will no longer exist. All the computer projections 
based upon current rates of removal indicate that the globe’s last 
major tracts of rainforest will be entirely gone within the next 
century, the majority of them within the next half-century. At 
the moment, less than 3 percent of Africa’s equatorial forest hab- 
itat is protected in reserves. Most of those are quite small and al- 
ready have problems with illegal logging and poachers. 

I turned onto my side in the tent and whispered, “Mike, you 
awake?” 

“Mmmmm. What’s up?” 

“I sure hope the Dzanga-Sangha project holds up. I just fig- 
ured out how important it is. Good work.” 

“I’ll second that,” Thompson muttered. “Now can we go to 
sleep?” 

The next day brought a blow-out hike of some twenty-seven 
miles back through the forest to Bambio, running transects 
again. We found less animal sign and more shotgun shells and 
snares. For the last ten miles, I entertained myself by wondering 
what a gorilla did when it found itself alone without any other 
gorillas in the countryside. I wondered what it was like to eat 
chimpanzees and gorillas^ as many people did in these parts, and 
if you ate something for breakfast that was 98 percent human in 
terms of DNA, did that make it any easier to contemplate hav- 
ing a human for dinner? The youngest pygmy’s knee gave out 



19$ The Fate op thb Elephant 

toward the end. He limped behind my flashlight into the village 
late at night, and that was the end of our rumble through the 
jungle. Ib return to Bangui, we had to bash Mike's Toyota along 
a rarely used, overgrown cart trail in order to avoid the bandits 
on the main road. Once we finally struck a larger road, we hid 
Mbutu beneath a tarp to smuggle him past a drunken cop at a 
checkpoint. Mike didn’t want to hear “You got a permit for that 
pygmy?” again, and he needed Mbutu’s help surveying an area 
farther east. 

In Bangui, people tended to treat Mbutu as, at best, a second- 
class citizen. We took him to dinner at the fanciest French hotel 
we could find. We considered having Mbutu call the snobbish 
African waiter over and send the wine back, saying that he found 
the bouquet of this vintage a bit presumptuous, but decided that 
would be carrying our tittle fit of spitefulness against pygmy 
discrimination too far. This being the tallest building in Bangui, 
we went up to the thirteenth floor for a view of the city. Mbutu 
had been fairly high up before in trees, but he was uncomfoft- 
able the whole time we were up on the top floor. Even when 
walking on solid concrete steps, he trod as though he suspected 
the whole affair might snap off and tumble away at any moment. 
His high, soft laugh grew higher and softer and finally stopped. 
So we retired to my room and drank beer while Mbutu told 
stories. I stepped with him out onto the balcony. He seemed 
more relaxed at this altitude, about halfway up the building, and 
was adjusting to his new environment quite quickly. He leaned 
out to look, with his arms resting on the railing. I leaned out 
next to him, and together we watched the Ubangui River flow 
by in the moonlight. 


tSl5l51Sl5l5l5lSU5lSl5l51S > 

On the outskirts of Bangui stood a series of low, mud-bnck 
houses with tin roofs from which issued steady hammering 
sounds. In some, women were pounding manioc. In the others, 
artisans were carving ivory tusks. In an adjoining shed, workers 
polished the finished products with abrasive leaves from the um- 



Central Africa: Bayanga 197 


brclla tree. Others stained the carvings a rich nut brown by boil- 
ing them in an extract of chicory. They were small tusks and 
small carvings, of crocodiles and women’s faces, one like the 
next, and none of them especially well done. 

The tusks averaged ten to twelve kilos, the owner of the busi- 
ness, Jean Ngbodjourou, told me. Small size was a problem for 
making decent sculptures, he said. More than half the ivory 
might be lost from a ten-kilo tusk in the working of some 
pieces. The most one could do with the fragments was salvage a 
few to make little ivory blocks for resting knives upon at the din- 
ner table. Many of the tusks I saw being chiseled and rasped 
were only between one and two kilos to begin with; they ap- 
peared to have come from elephants barely past the age of 
nursing. 

“Big tusks are few, and they go directly to collectors. The 
ones we can get are smaller every year,” Jean complained. “We 
will have to turn more and more to wood, but there is not as 
much market for that.” He was right, although I knew that 
ebony, also poached throughout Africa, had become scarce 
enough that it was selling for up to U.S. $300 per kilo abroad, 
nearly as high as premium tusks. Jean obtained his ivory from 
. . . private people, he said. And from the Department of Water 
and Forests. All from elephants taken in control actions, of 
course. His brother happened to be the chef de cantonnement , or 
district head, at Bayanga — an important man, I knew, and the 
owner of an important gun. In any event, Jean’s supply was 
clearly drying up. Several of his carvers were working with 
wart hog tusks and hippopotamus teeth instead of elephant 
tusks. 

Elephant tusks of less than ten kilos were not supposed to be 
traded. However, any piece, no matter how small, was legal as 
long as it was worked ivory. In fact, if the finished product 
weighed under one kilo, so much the better, since it did not re- 
quire a CITES permit for export. I could not prove that the tiny 
tusks I saw were not simply the tips of larger, legal ones. The 
similarity between the two made the restriction on trading tusks 
of less than ten kilos all but impossible to enforce — even if 



198 The Fate of the Elephant 


someone were to bother trying. The majority of Jean’s output 
went to a French colonel. I don’t know how the colonel trans- 
ported it, but impressive quantities of ivory passed from the 
C. A.R. to France on military transport planes, thereby avoiding 
such nuisances as duty and customs. Almost every returning sol- 
dier, advisor, businessman, and casual visitor went home with at 
least a statuette and a few additional ivory baubles and charms. 
In the ivory shops were bracelets, earrings, chess sets, crucifixes, 
and large and small carvings of women, pygi&y hunters, ma- 
donnas, hippos, crocodiles, rhinos, elephants, and fruits. 

Jean worked a ton of ivory annually. If his tusks really aver- 
aged ten kilos, that represented only ioo tusks, or 56 elephants 
(using the formula of 1.8 tusks per animal). But if his tusks av- 
eraged two kilos, as I thought they did, that represented nearly 
500 tusks, or 278 elephants. And there were at least a dozen such 
shops still operating in the capital and more in outlying towns. 
Never mind the lucrative export of prime uncarved tusks. I 
could easily account for several thousand elephants each yea*r 
felled for nothing more than hastily crafted figurines and bau- 
bles. Put another way, soft sales of ivory — the casual market for 
gee-gaws — alone was enough to keep driving the residual ele- 
phant population of the C. A.R. toward oblivion. Architects of 
the emerald realm, dispersers of bounty, the giants would be 
dribbled away in trinkets. 

Another day in Bangui, I paid a call upon Alassan Garba, a 
Muslim ivory merchant. A huge man, he suffered painfully 
from gout. He received us while lying upon a couch in his par- 
lor, surrounded by sculptures and ivory veneer mosaics repre- 
senting a choice selection from his twenty years in the ivory 
trade, which began in the Republic of Congo. Several sculptures 
were so massive that I found it difficult to believe tusks of such 
thickness ever existed. He also sold ivory carved and highly pol- 
ished to yield gleaming penises, a favorite among the French 
military. 

But Alassan also complained of the difficulty of obtaining 
ivory of decent size these days. For what he did get, Alassan paid 
aroundU.S. $33 per kilo. Money could still be made in this busi- 



Central Africa: Bayanga 199 

ness, but the big money, he said, was being cornered by the 
agents who shipped raw tusks straight to collectors and major 
international players. 

Before departing the C.A.R., Thompson and I made careful 
arrangements through various officials to be certain we would 
have no trouble hand-carrying Thompson’s film through cus- 
toms. In keeping with the character of the trip, the man engaged 
to assist us took us almost as far as he could through the depar- 
ture process, but then completely disappeared, and everything 
went spinning rapidly down toward an abysmal level of customs 
hell. We were soon locked in a screaming match with a security 
guard. He won. I am at a disadvantage when I try to think fast 
in French. Besides, he had the machine gun. The French over- 
seer of the customs gate was worse than unsympathetic as I told 
him why Thompson’s hard- won film should not be subjected to 
X-rays from antiquated equipment. He waved us off. 

I rounded up someone from the crowd milling behind the 
customs barrier who could plead our case in better French. But 
that didn’t help either. The machine gun-slinger pointed his 
muzzle at the film and then the X-ray machine and said, “It goes 
in there or you stay here. I will not tell you again.” To stay in 
Bangui and try to arrange clearance again meant days or possibly 
weeks. Finally, Thompson, who was thinking more clearly than 
I, decided upon an end run around the devils of customs hell. Af- 
ter stuffing as many of his precious cameras as possible in my 
bags for me to haul through, he sprinted off to ship his film with 
the regular luggage at the last n&inute. It was risky, for luggage 
disappears forever on the best of airlines; a photographer friend 
lost six months’ worth of work in Antarctica shipping his film 
that way. Thompson had to disperse liberal bribes to get some- 
one to run out and load his package with the rest of the luggage. 
But at least he knew it was getting on the right plane at the 
outset. 

A blur of hours and time zones later, we were in England, ut- 
terly astounded that the people with whom we dealt were ac- 
tually trying to be polite and helpful. Several weeks after that, at 
his home in Seattle, Thompson went down with cerebral ma- 



200 The Fatb op thb Elbfhant 


lari a, At the hospital, the doctors told him that he might not 
have survived if he had arrived a few hours later. Considering 
all the other places we had been, I thought he timed the whole 
thing extremely well. 



SEVEN 


Japan 


IS 15 U 515 On my way home from the Central African Re- 
public in early June of 1989, I stopped in Washington, D.C., to 
meet with my editor at the National Geographic Society. I was 
asked to attend a meeting of the upper-level staff and brief them 
on the status of the elephant, which I did. Fresh from several 
months in the field, I offered what I thought was the very latest 
information. As soon as I finished, one editor said, “I guess you 
haven’t heard,” and handed me a newspaper clipping from the 
previous day. It was an announcement that the United States was 
banning further ivory imports and that the European Economic 
Community was expected to follow suit shortly. For the first 
time, I began to hope that the story of elephants might become 
more than a chronicle of ruin. 

Apparently, the continuous stream of news reports about el- 
ephant poaching had finally begun to affect the political sphere. 
Demonstrations had helped as well. In both the United States 
and Europe, protesters had disrupted ivory sales at department 
stores. In Paris, a band called Robin des Bois (Robin Hood) 
dressed in papier-mache elephant masks and trumpeted through 
the boulevards tusking shoppers at bijouteries selling ivory. 
“Robin Hood did not always act legally, but he always acted le- 
gitimately,” noted cofounder Marlene Kanas, as the group re- 
peatedly padlocked the door of one ivory dealer. Another 
French group, Amnestie Pour Les Elephants, pursued a strong 
anti-ivory campaign. 

If one particular piece of publicity could be credited with 
helping to overturn the status quo, it would be the advertise- 
ment placed in major newspapers and national magazines by the 



102 The Fate op the Elephant 

African Wildlife Foundation. The ad featured, a photograph of 
an elephant kneeling as if resting on the ground with its head 
slightly turned so that one eye met the viewer. It was more or 
less a face-on portrait. The catch was that this elephant had no 
face. That had been ripped off, leaving white lumps of gristle 
amid tattered membranes. The animal was not resting but dead. 
The image was plainly in poor taste. Its message was that to 
wear part of such a creature’s face as an ornament was not very 
classy either. 

Not many consumers had given much thought to where the 
ivory they purchased came from. Hardly any realized that 80 to 
90 percent of all the ivory sold in recent years, even in the most 
strenuously “tasteful” fashion stores, came from poached ele- 
phants. Some people assumed African villagers picked up old 
tusks they found lying around. A surprising percentage of the 
public wasn’t exactly sure what ivory was in the first place. 
Many imagined the substance to be some sort of mineral mined 
from the earth, like jade. Others thought of it as something that 
literally grew on trees, confusing elephant teeth with material 
such as the extremely hard, white product made from the nut of 
the South American plant Phytelephas macrocarpa, sometimes 
marketed as “vegetable ivory.” Still others simply thought ivory 
was a type of tree, like ebony. After the African Wildlife Foun- 
dation ad, however, it was not so easy to avoid the association 
between buying, selling, or wearing ivory and stealing ele- 
phants’ faces. 

As forecast, Europe’s Economic Community did follow the 
United States in banning most further ivory imports. Now the 
critical question became what Japan would do. 

In August of 1989, having discovered that a taxi from Narita 
Airport to downtown Tokyo could cost upward of U.S. $250 , 1 
was rolling along the freeway on a bus, peering out the window 
at mile upon mile of unliving scenery. There were individual 
structures — factories and apartment complexes topped by bill- 



Japan 203 


boards, antennas, and mesh-enclosed golf driving ranges — but 
it was basically continuous concrete strata out there in equally 
grey air. Suddenly, amid the dullness, a swale of bright green: 
a rice paddy, also shaped by people, but nonetheless soft and 
vibrant. Farmers trying to preserve such plots had been fight- 
ing for years against expansion of Narita Airport, I recalled. 
And I wondered whether any would sympathize with the last 
elephants in patches of green forest falling before the chain 
saw, Japan being the major consumer of the world’s tropical 
hardwoods. 

The few scattered rice fields were quickly replaced by paved, 
inanimate landscapes again. Gradually, the buildings became 
more massive, taller, capped by larger and flashier billboards — 
more adamant. The smog and traffic congealed. Crowds thick- 
ened on the sidewalks. I was nearing the center of Tokyo, an in- 
conceivably dense creation of steel and glass embedded in still 
more concrete. Part mall, part hive, it also struck me at moments 
as a vast mausoleum despite all the commotion and neon trap- 
pings. It wasn’t just that the pervasive acrid, grey air seemed to 
wash the life from everything. It was my knowledge that this 
was the core of the island where seven out of every ten elephant 
tusks in the world had lately arrived. I had reached the elephants’ 
graveyard. Marking the mood off as another mixture of jet lag 
and farewell-to-Montana culture shock, I shuffled into a hotel in 
search of a good bed. Even as I did, some forty tons of ivory 
from Hong Kong were being held up at customs, suspected of 
having illegal origins. 

Unlike Hong Kong, Japan was at least making an effort to 
comply with international ivory-trading regulations these days. 
It had also agreed to limit its total ivory import to no more than 
100 tons that year, down from 132 tons the previous year, the 
bulk of it coming from Hong Kong and the rest mainly from 
Belgium and Singapore. On June 19, 1989, Japan had followed 
the lead of the United States and Europe in banning the import 
of all processed ivory and ivory scraps, along with ivory from 
any country that had not joined the *03 member nations of 
CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Spe- 



ao4 The Fate of the Elephant 

cics). Now the Japanese government was even talking of going 
beyond this to a total ban on all ivory imports. Europe had been 
contemplating the same move, and on August 18, the twelve- 
member European Economic Community announced that it 
was doing so. I was still just beginning to explore Tokyo that 
day, but I had learned something important: retail sales of ivory 
jewelry and statuary in Japan were already beginning to slow. 
Granted, this was partly because the price had become so exor- 
bitant. But it was partly due to a growing awareness that the 
market for elephant tusks might be coming to an end. 

Might be. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have wanted to bet 
money on the possibility. Not given Japans notorious defiance 
of world opinion by continuing to slaughter the only intelligent 
mammals greater than elephants — the whales — in order to sub- 
sidize an obsolete industry. The nation’s various ivory manufac- 
turers had joined together in trying to convince the government 
to simply cut back on the import of elephant incisors rather than 
cut off the flow completely. After all, their lobbyists were say-* 
ing, some 30,000 Japanese depended upon the ivory industry for 
employment. A more thorough look quickly revealed that Japan 
had eighty companies with 600 employees directly involved in 
the business of carving or otherwise processing ivory. The other 
29,400 “ivory workers’’ were clerks and salespeople in retail 
stores and import-export companies, nearly all of whom dealt 
with other materials as well. For example, a sales clerk in the 
jewelry section at a department store was included in the total if 
she handled an ivory bracelet or a pair of ivory earrings once in 
a while. 

After time-consuming and rather delicate negotiations, the 
government-sponsored foreign press agency introduced me to 
officials in the ivory industry. Those gentlemen immediately 
presented me with a handsome color brochure entitled “Keep 
Ivory Legal” and a video, both showing the traditional use of 
ivory for carving and in association with musical instruments. 
The information implied that the venerable Japanese culture 
would all but disintegrate should ivory be banned. 

On the video, nearly 100 musicians in black kimonos settled 



Japan 205 

themselves with dignity upon a stage and coaxed rich sounds 
from the bowl-bottomed stringed instrument known as the 
shamisett, a fretless lute. Strumming is done with a large plec- 
trum, or pick — a very large one, called a baachi. Different baachis 
generate different qualities of sound. The best results come from 
those made of ivory, carved from a single large tusk. No ivory 
baachi, no pure, clear shamisett sound. No such shamisett sound, 
no traditional puppet theater. No Kabuki dramas. No living link 
to the past. Well, none of these things would be quite the same, 
insisted the narrator. 

The video continued with someone playing the biwa, another 
stringed instrument, this one with frets. The frets are made of 
ivory, again supposedly because no other material produces such 
a beautiful tonal quality. Then came shots of ganio, a pigment 
containing ivory mixed with other minerals that is used to create 
the lucid white in certain Japanese wood-block prints. “Art can 
only be made by understanding the spirit of nature — becoming 
one with nature,” the narrator was saying. He went on to con- 
clude that we must save the legacies of culture and nature 
together. 

It was pretty good stuff. Naturally, not a single scuff mark 
from one fallen elephant had made it onto the screen or into the 
brochure. I asked what the ivory dealers were doing to save the 
legacies of nature. Specifically, what were they doing to help 
preserve the great beasts that provide ivory, the apparent main- 
stay of so much Japanese culture? They replied that they had 
agreed to a self-imposed tax upon ivory imports. From funds 
raised by that tax, they had contributed $130,000 to CITES over 
the past three years. Moreover, they planned to donate another 
$10,000 to some conservation group that year. 

Never mind that CITES was widely viewed as more repre- 
sentative of wildlife traders’ interests than of wildlife to begin 
with. Never mind that $10,000 — for Japan’s eighty ivory com- 
panies, that works out to $12$ each — was less than a pittance 
compared to the windfall profits they had made as the price of 
ivory went ballistic. Never mind that these same dealers were 
going to spend $142,000 in 1989 on pro-ivory “propaganda,” as 



ao6 Tub Fats of the Elephant 


Tamotsu Ishibashi, senior managing director of the Ibkyo Ivory 
Arts and Crafts Cooperative, openly described it to me. Never 
mind that for years, while the average tusk brought in was be- 
coming too small even to produce proper sizes of the baachi said 
to be vital to shamisen playing and related traditional art forms, 
the contribution toward elephant conservation from this end 
was zero. And never mind that when I asked what baachis were 
made of before ivory came into more widespread use, Ishibashi- 
san shrugged and replied, “Wood," and then shrugged again, 
knowing he had as much as admitted that wood had a longer tra- 
dition behind it than ivory did. Prior to the Edo Period (1603- 
1867), ivory actually had little place in Japanese society. Still, I 
found the arguments in favor of carrying on ivory carving com- 
pelling, for there is no question but that Japan has produced 
some of the finest pieces of sculpture in the world using the 
unique medium of elephant incisors. 

Carvers from China, Southeast Asia, and India would surely 
contest the point, but their most elaborate creations can seldom 
match the achievements of Japan’s ivory sculptors. At least, this 
is the opinion of many collectors. From what I have seen — and 
that includes a block of ivory carved by Chinese workers into 
twenty-seven lacelike balls, each imprisoned within the next 
larger one; and a screen, or jali, of wood and inlaid ivory that 
took an Indian father-son team more than a decade to com- 
plete — I would agree. Japanese ivory carving is in a class by it- 
self. Their more refined and expressive, individual approach 
transcends artisanry to yield true, moving works of art. 

After viewing the statuary made from ivory in the National 
Museum, I stood for hours in commercial establishments such 
as the Murasaki Gallery, Tokyo’s oldest ivory carving gallery, sa- 
voring modern carvers’ perfectly rendered ivory figurines of 
such subjects as courtesans, samurai, and the seven Oriental 
gods of luck. My favorite among those deities is Fukurokuju, 
whose huge, domed head reminds me of an Indian elephant. 
Originally a star god in China, he evolved into the Japanese god 
of riches, happiness, and longevity, with the power to raise the 
dead. In any good display, he and his companions stand near 
open jars of water on the shelves. In this gallery, the owner ran 



Javan 207 


a humidifier that kept the whole room moist as well. Otherwise 
the ivory might dry and crack over time. For now, it remained 
flawlessly smooth and white as a geisha’s powdered face, its in- 
ner glow almost like that of living flesh. 

For many connoisseurs, the very finest and most sophisticated 
carved pieces are not the realistic statues but small, round orna- 
ments with a hole in the center known as netsuke. Kimonos lack 
pockets; folks wearing them therefore had to stuff personal ef- 
fects in the voluminous sleeves, the breast folds, or else the sash 
around the waist. Small, heavy, or easily spilled things presented 
a problem. The solution was to place them in a pouch, or inro, 
and hang that from the sash. In the old days, the pouch would 
have been leather and held flint and tinder. Later inro were silken 
purses containing a pipe and tobacco, along with perhaps a few 
medicines and other essential items. To keep the string holding 
the pouch from slipping off the sash, a toggle — the netsuke — was 
put on the end. Over the centuries, the preferred type changed 
from metal rings to thicker, more ornamented hoops. Finally, 
the toggle became a solid piece, often richly worked, yet still al- 
ways smooth and rounded to keep from fraying the kimono’s 
outer lining or tangling in its folds. 

The practice of carrying inro developed during the fifteenth 
century and became widely popular among privileged classes 
around the end of the sixteenth century. By the Edo Period, both 
netsuke and inro had become fashion statements in themselves 
and the making of them a distinct art form. The netsuke in par- 
ticular had to be not just splendidly carved but clever — smart, 
declaring a certain style and wit. Or embody the classical vir- 
tues of wabi (serenity) and sabi (elegant simplicity). Or be some- 
how clever and Zen-calm at once. Whatever the case, the old 
kimono sash toggles were obviously taking on levels of meaning 
infinitely beyond holding a pouch in place. They were prized 
possessions, speaking volumes about the owner’s status and sen- 
sibilities. In the end, they might not be worn at all, only dis- 
played. Yet they always retained the round or oval form plus the 
hole in the center for the string. It became a challenge for artists 
to incorporate these elements effortlessly into their design. 

Throughout the Edo Period, Japan remained largely closed to 



ao« The Fate op the Elephant 

the West. Only the Dutch were permitted to trade in the coun- 
try. They acquired a fair amount of ivory artwork and were 
really starting to load up on netsuke as the period came to an end. 
Once Japan opened its ports to all during the latter half of the 
nineteenth century, Western fashions supplanted kimonos, with 
the result that inro and netsuke became obsolete. At the same 
time, however, the popularity of netsuke was spreading rapidly 
among Western collectors. This proved most fortunate for Ja- 
pan, which found itself with relatively few goods for export to 
gain foreign currency. Along with lacquerware and ceramics, 
netsuke helped put the island nation on a better trade footing. 
Pound for pound, these ivory pouch-holders fetched far higher 
prices than any other product. Japan exported huge quantities of 
them to the United States and Europe, which is where the ma- 
jority of antique netsuke can be found today. 

Tom Milliken, director of the Japan office of TRAFFIC 
(Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce), a di- 
vision of the World Wildlife Fund, helped me immeasurably ifi 
following the various channels of the ivory trade in his adopted 
country. After providing introductions to key people, he freed 
assistant director Hideomi Tokunaga from his regular tasks to 
direct me to factories, shops, and offices. Once at a destination, 
Tokunaga-san continued to show the way, guiding me through 
discussions of sensitive subjects while translating, according re- 
spect where it was due, saving face when I overstepped invisible 
lines of protocol, and generally doing everything he could to 
make things scrutable. Without his self-effacing, mannerly pres- 
ence, I doubt some of the older people with whom we spoke 
would have proved half so forthcoming around a foreigner. 

An hour’s trip by subway and train one afternoon brought us 
to a tile-roofed house in the suburbs with a garden to one side. 
Wasps were hunting insects trapped in spiders' webs among the 
petals, and goldfish swam among lilies in small, aerated pots. 
Shelf upon shelf of bonsai trees ringed the patio by the back 
door. Nature. Compressed and sculpted until it had become 
mostly symbolic, like the netsuke , but still nature. And still a re- 
freshment for the spirit, parched for a bit of green after traipsing 



Japan 209 

around central Tokyo. Projecting from another side of the house 
was a room with many windows, and inside, bathed in the day’s 
light, were a workbench, tools, and blocks of ivory. This was 
the home of sculptor Maranosuke Okazaki, whose rather large, 
kindly face met us at the door. He had moved here ten years ear- 
lier, he said, to escape the rising costs of living at his old place in 
Tokyo proper, where the tall buildings that had risen on all sides 
obliged him to work in the shade even at midday. 

Okazaki-san — or, more properly, Okazaki-sensei, denoting 
master — goes by the professional, or artist’s, name of Koetsu. 
Ko is from a Chinese character meaning courtesy to parents; all 
this man’s ancestors and carvers of the same school used the ko 
prefix. Etsu, he chose himself, for it comes from a character rep- 
resenting joy or pleasure, and he “works to create pleasure for 
people who appreciate ivory,” he told me. He hastened to add, 
“I would like to continue ivory carving. As this is my life’s 
work, I am most concerned for the future of the elephants.” We 
were in his living room sipping tea while snacking on an assort- 
ment of sushi. The face of the clock on the wall consisted of nu- 
merals on a plasticized photograph of a family of elephants. 
Koetsu showed me the elephant-hide belt he wore around his 
ample girth and produced a busine c s card from a wallet of snake- 
skin. I believe he considered these signs of his interest in the nat- 
ural world. 

Koetsu was born in 193 5. His father was a famed ivory carver. 
Koetsu’s elder brother followed in the father’s footsteps. At the 
age of about twelve, Koetsu, too, began to learn carving, at- 
tracted to ivory by its smell and, still more, by its touch. “Ivory 
feels smooth and has a warmness that makes it become one tem- 
perature with your hand when you hold it,” he informed me. 
“That is why the heads of stethoscopes used to be made of ivory. 
Ivory also gives a balanced heaviness. Not too light, like wood; 
not too heavy, like metal. A good heaviness. This quality is es- 
pecially important with netsuke .” 

Since childhood, Koetsu had nurtured bonsai trees, a hobby 
usually favored by older people. He also became interested in 
painting. By the age of fifteen, he was apprenticed to a master 



2io Thb Fats of the Elephant 


carver while continuing to absorb his father's experience and 
techniques. "The most important thing an apprentice learns is 
how to cut the ivory into a basic form — and with as little waste 
as possible. Later, he learns how to employ progressively smaller 
chisels to bring out the details," Koetsu said as he shepherded us 
toward his studio. He had more than a hundred chisels that he 
had made himself arranged in drawers there. Swinging on an 
arm above those hand-crafted, palm-worn tools was a shining 
dentist's drill, a concession to changing times made by almost 
every sculptor nowadays. 

Earlier, Koetsu had shown me a statuette that he described 
as a mixture of a god and a dragon. Its blend of the sinuous 
and ornate was spellbinding. Modestly insisting that the piece 
wasn’t very good, Koetsu said he only kept it as a memento of 
the time during his mid-thirties when he was becoming inde- 
pendent of the influence of his father — ‘‘a great favorer of drag- 
ons.” Now, from the workbench, Koetsu picked up a nearly 
completed netsuke and held it out for inspection. Its subject was 
another type of traditional Japanese figure — the kappa , or water 
imp. He had carved a gang of them playing golf, the current Jap- 
anese craze. 

To finalize his ideas, Koetsu often carved a figure in wood 
first, but wood is too porous and soft to hold the detail that ivory 
can. Ceramic, jade, onyx, and other hard materials are too brit- 
de; they might snap or shear under the strain when it comes 
down to the final intricate slices. "The basic advantage of ivory 
is its hardness-yet-softness. Its elasticity. This is what enables the 
carver to make such delicate parts," he explained. Like most 
ivory sculptors, he favored hard ivory — forest elephant tusks. 
They hold even greater detail than soft ivory while still retaining 
enough elasticity to be forgiving. 

Koetsu’s first love was netsuke, followed by conventional 
sculpture. For a bit of extra income, he occasionally carved ac- 
cessories, the generic term that includes jewelry — bangles, bau- 
bles, and gee-gaws — and miscellaneous items from ear picks to 
chopstick holders. "My greatest reward is to make original 
works. To forget about money and just make happiness," he told 



Japan 211 

me. “My greatest sorrow lies in not passing on what I have 
learned.” 

Having cut and shaped ivory for more than forty years, 
Koetsu had gained artistic recognition, financial success, and the 
current presidency of the Japan Ivory Carvers Association. Yet 
he had no apprentice, a catastrophic situation for any practitio- 
ner of traditional arts and crafts in Japan. “The old way is of 
teacher to student, then the student becoming a teacher, so that 
each man has his own stream,” he observed, and in his face was 
an expression like that of someone just informed by a physician 
that he could never have children. 

It takes at least ten years to learn carving. During that time, 
the apprentice is not paid, his reward being the master’s unique 
knowledge. Along the way, though, the apprentice should be 
able to begin selling enough of his own simple sculptures and 
accessories to earn a modest income on the side. As Japan’s post- 
World War II economy recovered and then began to build to- 
ward a boom, young people were lured away from traditional 
callings toward more lucrative jobs. Ironically, there was a 
greater demand for ivory than ever before as a result of the same 
economic boom, but it became so insatiable that it spurred a shift 
to mass production methods. 

Some of the principal ivory dealers began to duplicate figu- 
rines with mechanical copying devices. (These days, many are 
driven by computers, and the reproductions are virtually indis- 
tinguishable in every detail from the original.) When even that 
failed to keep up with Japan’s craving for ivory, the dealers 
turned to Hong Kong. Mass-produced accessories and sculp- 
tures were soon flooding in from expanded facilities there, and 
they undercut the salability of works by Japanese apprentices. 
As a result, fewer young men than ever were seeking to study 
under the ivory-carving masters. Almost none had come for- 
ward for the past several years. Even those who could somehow 
arrange to finance their apprenticeship foresaw a potential col- 
lapse of the ivory art tradition and turned toward vocations with 
a more promising future. The youngest apprentice ivory sculp- 
tor in the nation was in his mid-thirties. The average age of the 



2ia The Fate of the Elephant 


sixty-one current members of the carvers' association presided 
over by Koetsu was now more than fifty years, and rising. 

Looking at my open notebook, Koetsu spoke for his organi- 
zation: “Art is important, but nature is more important than art. 
The elephants must not disappear. If they do, our tradition will 
also and never come back. I pray there will be total protection of 
the elephant until poaching is stopped. An effective way to do 
this is to stop international trade for a while— ^perhaps even five 
to ten years — while the herds build back up.” 

Patiently, Tokunaga-san described the basics of elephant pop- 
ulation dynamics to Koetsu. He told the sculptor how females 
rarely reach maturity before their teens and how they then pro- 
duce young only at intervals of several years. Elephants have a 
potential life span of seventy-plus years, yet the average female 
tusk now came from an animal about twenty-four years old — 
just hitting her prime, not even middle-aged, Tokunaga-san 
said. Meanwhile, the average male tusk came from an immature 
animal no more than eleven years of age. Elephant populations 
had not only been decimated, explained Tokunaga-san, they had 
been purged of older, experienced breeding animals. 

Koetsu quickly grasped the point. “Ah so. Even ten years will 
not be enough,” he said. He shook his head, then recovered. 
“We could accept that. We can use existing stocks of tusks and 
then continue traditional techniques in wood, returning to ivory 
later, whenever the elephants are safe. Collectors will grow 
bored with wood carvings. They will buy less. But I will even 
suffer a loss of business, if only we can have enough interest 
from collectors to survive and pass on our art to another gener- 
ation.” He stopped and shook his head once more. “The trouble 
is that many of my colleagues would lose their particular skills 
for working with ivory after ten years of other materials.” 

Closer to the heart of the city, Katsutoshi Saito sat cross- 
legged before the traditional low carver’s bench. He was in the 
final stages of completing a netsuke. Having polished it with 
sandpaper of increasingly fine grade, he switched to a brush of 
stiff hairs from a horse’s tail, then to a cotton cloth impregnated 
with powdery-fine sand, using a pointed bamboo stick to reach 



Japan 213 

into crevices. As I watched, he spoke of ivory’s unique “aero- 
dynamical form, a smoothness that cannot be brought forth as 
well in any other material.” Finally, he started to rub the ivory 
by hand, using a powder made from burnt deer antlers. In his 
opinion, the best powder came from live antlers. He could get 
them from a temple where the priests cut off a limited quantity 
from the resident deer each year. Thus, the specialized bone of 
one species gave the finishing touch to the specialized tooth 
taken from another species. The result ... if you can ignore the 
cost in animals, the result was luminous and sublime. 

This netsuke contained a beast in metamorphosis — part tiger, 
part snake, and part monkey, each a creature of power and ca- 
lamity. Shifting from Japanese to English, Saito-sensei said, “It 
represents something very bad fortune.” Though similar to tra- 
ditional netsuke , all of his subjects are at the same time wholly 
original outgrowths of his imagination, whose force 1 could 
feel. Some of his works writhed within the ivory as if straining 
to break loose. Others seemed still to be congealing from a 
dream. Many were marked by a sleek, voluptuous quality, their 
ivory warmth at once visual and tactile. In another netsuke , he 
had transmuted an ordinary rabbit into something mythic and 
erotic, a talisman almost too powerful to hold. Then he brought 
out the sleekest beast yet. “Otter. He always enjoys his life,” ob- 
served Saito-sensei. “He seeks what I call applause for liberty. 
Adorement of liberty? Hmmm, celebration maybe? I seek the 
same thing — to take a beautiful abstract form from my brain and 
give it free expression.” He had succeeded. Overall, his carvings 
were the most dynamic, limit-pushing artworks that I encoun- 
tered in my travels. 

The professional name chosen by Saito-sensei is Bishu. It 
means beautiful country. Above his carving bench, Bishu had 
scrawled an exhortation to himself: Make the Line of Beauty. 
Next to that was a copy of Baudelaire’s poem “Chanson de lAu- 
tomne.” Books on philosophy, art, and culture in several lan- 
guages hid three of the studio’s four walls from floor to ceiling. 
Bishu cited Brancusi and Cezanne as major influences upon his 
work. “I have a theory that all nature takes these forms: egg, 



214 The Fate or the Elephant 

circle, cylinder/* he proclaimed. “When I learned that Cezanne 
said nature should be treated as round shapes — round cylinder, 
round ball, and round cone that becomes the oval when you slice 
across it at an angle — I was so happy, because this is what I had 
beat believing.” 

Bishu leaped from his tatami mat to snatch a publication from 
his bookshelf and began to read me passages from a manifesto 
he had written about netsuke for an exhibition: “And the imagi- 
nation of the viewer must be carried to the sky and to outer 
space, where the stars are — or, to say it poetically, to create orbit 
in the palm of your hand.” Before long, he was in netsuke hy- 
perdrive, pulling out one book after another, telling me how we 
can use these sculptures in a world of international ideas and 
communication, modeling not just Japanese culture but the 
emerging global one. If you assumed, as Bishu did, that the oval 
netsuke represents one of the universe’s ideal forms, then you 
might go on to perceive, as he did, that a netsuke is in fact a 
scaled-down version of the universe itself, a cosmos you can rub 
with your thumb. After that, it wasn’t too hard to follow his 
train of thought at all. 

Bishu chain-smoked menthol cigarettes while alternately 
carving and expounding ideas. He had a slender body, casually 
clothed in loose, black pants and a white polo shirt, and an 
equally youthful face. In a different setting, I might have taken 
him for a graduate student. He was forty-seven years old. In Ja- 
pan, that is considered young to serve as leader of an official 
group of traditional artists; yet Bishu was the current president 
of the Netsuke Carvers Association. It was a measure of the es- 
teem in which others held this man’s talent. 

The great-grandfather, grandfather, and father of Bishu were 
all carvers. He was apprenticed to his father at age fifteen. Three 
years later, his father fell ill, and Bishu had to assume most of the 
family carving duties. He believes that being forced to learn 
quickly for himself accelerated his artistic development. Now he 
had an apprentice of his own. A rare thing, these days, an ap- 
prentice Japanese ivory carver. But then the man was exactly the 
same age as Bishu. 

“While die purpose of my life is to create good netsuke, I 



Japan 21s 

wish to strengthen my character so that I can carve with joy and 
tranquility,” Bishu told me. “My course is only searching for 
beauty. In search of beauty is my final direction.” Like Koetsu, 
he knew of no material that could compare with ivory’s com- 
bination of warmth, strength, and elasticity. But instead of wor- 
rying about how ivory skills might be lost if tusks became 
unavailable, he put the situation this way: “I would need twelve 
years to make the transition from ivory to wood or some other 
material. Then 1 would need two or three years to learn the char- 
acter of each type of wood. But I would continue without fail.” 
To Make the Line of Beauty. In whatever was at hand. 

I had arrived at a sort of moral crossroads, for I was beginning 
to view Japan’s ivory sculptors in the same terms as the elephants 
themselves: incomparable and in danger of vanishing. At the 
same time, I was keenly aware that the “we’re the real endan- 
gered species here” argument was so often invoked by the likes 
of polluters lobbying against regulation and logging companies 
trying to get at the last old-growth forest somewhere that it had 
been rendered almost completely bogus. Nevertheless, I saw a 
lot of similarity between the need to conserve biological diver- 
sity, as epitomized by elephants and their ecological role, and the 
need to conserve cultural diversity, as represented by traditional 
Japanese sculptors. Had the video and written propaganda I’d 
been given influenced my thinking? Not really. But sheer cov- 
etousness certainly had. The more I held and contemplated the 
work of artists such as Bishu, the harder it was to let go. For the 
first time, I wanted to possess ivory. I wanted those powerful 
figures and their glow-from-within beauty in my own room, 
wanted that orbit in the palm of my hand. 

In African markets, I had passed thousands of ivory carvings 
and felt not a flicker of admiration, much less desire. Careless, 
graceless stuff for the most part, often still bearing the tooth 
marks of files, those rough curios only made the modern resur- 
gence of ivory fever seem all the more foolish and a pitiful waste. 
But here in Tokyo, I finally felt for myself what had driven hu- 
mankind’s lust for ivory all those centuries. That alone made the 
trip worthwhile. 

Or so I believed for a few days after visiting the sculptors. 



2 i 6 The Fate op the Elephant 


Then confusion took over again. I was missing something — 
something fundamental. All of Japan held only about 130 mas- 
ter carvers, so few that most of the 45-odd members of the net- 
suke carvers' group headed by Bishu also belonged to the ivory 
carvers’ organization of which Koetsu was president. A few 
dozen large tusks taken from elephants that died naturally would 
have kept the whole bunch supplied for a year, so any elephants- 
versus-artists quandary was really beside the point — a nonissue. 
Even if you added in journeyman artisans cranking out unin- 
spired pieces, sculptures and netsuke still only consumed about 3 
percent of the raw ivory coming into Japan. Where was the rest? 


To find out, I crisscrossed Tokyo, looking through stores large 
and small. Considering the hundreds of thousands of tusks that 
had been sent to this island, I guess I expected to find evidence 
of them stacked everywhere. But the trade in Japan proved sur- 
prisingly subtle once you were past the few galleries and expen- 
sive showrooms specializing in ivory. In the Shinjuku district of 
Tokyo, 1 visited Isetan, a department store roughly the size of, 
oh, Delaware, and found a handful of ivory accessories. The re- 
markable thing is that there were dozens more stores just like it 
on all sides. Some of these places had a few ivory baubles in the 
jewelry section as well, maybe a selection of ivory chopsticks in 
another department, ivory buttons here, ivory chess sets there, 
and so on. Yet the total seemed trivial, scarcely perceptible amid 
the supernova of consumer goods and racing cash registers that 
is late-twentieth-century Japan. 

The mega-department stores graded directly into malls, 
which in turn gave way to smaller stores, and, finally, shops 
and curbside stands lining even the alleyways that led to the 
next complex of colossal department stores. Time and again, I 
heard myself say silently: So this is where most of the world’s 
money is circulating. I said it while staring open-mouthed at 
Si 20 gift-wrapped pairs of melons, Si 500 off-the-rack suits, 
S100 breakfast menus, young people who smiled pleasantly 



Japan 217 

while requesting $500 per day to serve as interpreters; while 
fording endless streams of shoppers in the glittering stores, 
endless crowds of determined-looking businesspeople on the 
almost spotless and relatively crime-free sidewalks, endless pa- 
rades of brand-new automobiles on the streets. This is what it 
must have been like for someone from the so-called Third World 
to visit a major city in the United States once upon a time, back 
when we had most of the money. (Not long ago, the value of 
the area encompassing Tokyo and nearby Yokohama surpassed 
the combined value of all the real estate in the United States plus 
the majority of western Europe.) 

Eventually, I visited enough places in Tokyo to realize that if 
you added all the ivory jewelry and other minor accessories in 
all the stores that sold them, the sum would no longer be trivial. 
Adding all the stores from other parts of the nation as well, you 
could account for about 25 percent of Japan’s ivory imports. The 
rest was still missing — until I looked in a quite different section 
of one department store. There, at a counter displaying pens and 
other writing materials, I happened upon my first array of 
hattko. 

Hattko are personal signature seals, commonly called chops, 
as in “He agreed to the deal and put his chop on it.” Like the 
word chop, hanko is something of a slang term. Signature seals 
also go by the name of inkan, inbou, or, more formally, jitsuin , 
the common root being in, which means seal. Inro, the pouch 
held by hetsuke, means seal bag, since it was often used to carry 
one’s personal chop. The days of the kimono may have faded, 
but one thing that has not changed is that written signatures have 
little meaning in respect to official documents. Bills of sale, 
other major business and legal contracts, certificates of birth, 
marriage, and death — none of these are considered valid unless 
stamped with a personal seal dipped in ink. 

Accordingly, each person selects an individualized chop pat- 
tern that is then carved onto the head of a hanko. The resulting 
print is registered with a central office, making it the legal mark 
of that person. Corporations also have distinctive seals and go 
through the same basic process to obtain and register them. 



ait The Fate of the Elephant 


Hanko may be made of boxwood, ebony, or cheap bamboo; 
jade, malachite, or common soapstone; buffalo horn, ceramic, 
or plastic; gold or pot metal; and all manner of other substances, 
including ivory — from hippopotamuses, walruses, wart hogs, 
or elephants. 

Wood and horn predominated in old Japan, whereas China 
always favored stone. Sometimes the handle was made of some- 
thing different than the head, which, ideally, should be hard 
enough to hold up to repeated use, yet absorbent enough to 
transfer a proper amount of ink onto paper. Ivory fits the pre- 
scription nicely. It was often glued onto a horn or wood shaft. 
More ivory was occasionally inlaid on the shaft for decoration. 
Yet hanko of solid ivory were not considered especially de- 
sirable. 

Once elephant teeth became so expensive that they could 
serve as status symbols, though, seals made of them grew pop- 
ular among the well-to-do, and Japan’s unprecedented economic 
growth proceeded to make growing numbers of middle class 
people well-to-do. Beginning in the 1970s, ivory hanko became 
the rage. They were perfect — something you could pull out of 
a pocket and flash around on important occasions without seem- 
ing to call attention to your wealth too loudly. Once everybody 
and his brother were acquiring ivory hanko , you could still stand 
out by opting for one of the thicker, costlier versions. Prefera- 
bly, it would be made of seamless hard ivory to distinguish it 
from those cut from less expensive soft ivory, whose cross- 
hatched internal structure is more evident upon close inspection. 
Miniature etchings or inlays of gold or precious stones added a 
further touch of prestige value to any hanko. 

The department store counter where I first noticed hanko had 
both plain and decorated styles on display. When I asked where 
I might find a still wider assortment, they directed me to a shop 
that dealt mainly in hanko a few streets away. It was called Nita 
(the family name of the owners) Inbou (seal). Mrs. Yochiko Nita 
showed me a selection of ivory chops ranging from about Si 00 
to more than $6000. She informed me that the high price of 
ivory combined with reduced imports had resulted in a return to 



Japan 219 

the style of hanko with a buffalo horn handle and an ivory head. 
Still, she had more solid ivory hanko than any other kind. And 
Japan had something like 11,000 hanko shops. Maybe 12,000, 
counting stationery stores that also carried an array of hanko. It 
didn’t matter. The point was that every one of the people in the 
crowds eating, shopping, and hurrying all around me owned a 
hanko , and a high percentage of those were made of ivory. By 
1981, the country was manufacturing personal seals from ivory 
at the rate of 2 million per year. 


I rode the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka to meet with Kageo 
Takaichi, chairman of the Ivory Division of the Japan General 
Merchandise Importers Association, chairman of the Osaka 
Ivory Arts and Crafts Association, director of the Japan Feder- 
ation of Ivory Arts and Crafts Association, president of Takaichi 
Ivory Company, Ltd., Japan’s biggest manufacturer of hanko , 
and surely one of the wealthiest men I had ever met. 

The way to Takaichi-san’s office took me through room after 
room stuffed with tusks and antique ivory pieces. The majority 
were part of his family’s private collection. I had never seen the 
likes before and never would afterward. The collection leaned 
toward the strikingly large, either carved from enormous old 
tusks or built from joined pieces. He had child-size human fig- 
ures from India, China, and Myanmar (Burma) as well as Japan; 
flocks of ivory birds and sprays of ivory flowers and nests of 
ivory dragons; elephants — a favorite theme of carvers every- 
where; ivory streams flowing off ivory mountainsides; giant 
ships with sails of fine ivory plate; even composite pieces rep- 
resenting entire village scenes. We passed carvings inlaid with 
gold and silver, others coated with gold lacquer, and a single set 
of figurines he said were valued at up to a third of a million dol- 
lars. And tusks stacked upright in the comers. Then tusks too 
long to fit that way resting on the floor, curving across an entire 
section of a room. One of these was a -140-pound tusk from 
Zaire for which he paid 1 5 00 a kilogram — $31,500 total. And 



220 Thb Fatb op thb Elephant 


mammoth tusks with cracked grey rinds, smelling of dirt and 
powdery decay. 

In his office stood still more impressive works and, behind a 
false panel, shelves of erotic ivory sculpture. The movable parts 
were, ah, intriguing. As for the carved ivory skull that opened 
along hidden lines to reveal female genitalia in full bloom, words 
completely, fortunately, fail me. I followed Takaichi-san to his 
house to see what he said was something else he liked to collect. 
After sex and death and the fatal beauty of ivory; here came. . . . 
“Harley-Davidson, my friend. Now this is a bike!” he ex- 
claimed, leading the way past a line of big American motorcy- 
cles. Once or twice a year, he would jump on one of these hogs 
and roar off into the countryside. Just ride the mountain roads 
for a couple of days, he said; get back to nature. 

In the basement of his home more tusks were stacked. This is 
where he kept the flawed specimens — the chipped, streaked, de- 
cayed, or deformed. Several had bullets embedded in them. 
Other contained lead that sellers had poured into hollowed-oflt 
portions on purpose to raise the weight and bring a better price. 
The practice of stuffing tusks with metal or heavy stones goes 
back to the earliest days of trading, as does soaking the fine- 
pored ivory in water prior to a sale. 

‘‘Ten years ago, the tusks we were getting averaged seventeen 
to eighteen kilograms,” Takaichi-san observed. ‘‘Today, eight 
kilograms is the average.” Most of the tusks were hard ivory 
from Zaire, Gabon, and the Congo. To turn them into hanko, 
workers began by cutting them across the grain into blocks 
about three inches long. Each was then carefully studied and 
marked so that the band-saw operator could slice the maximum 
number of hanko blanks from the block, much as a saw operator 
in a lumber mill tries to get as many boards as possible out of 
each log. As soon as the blanks were cut, another worker ground 
the rough edges on a wheel until they were perfectly cylindrical 
and ready for polishing. 

White powder from tooth dentine thickened the air and 
coated every object and person in the factory, giving the whole 
place a haunted quality. 1 suddenly remembered the ivory craft 



Japan 221 

shop with mammoth tusks that I had visited in Siberia and my 
later dream of wandering through a graveyard of long-dead 
giants by the sea. All around me now were stacked boxes 
of rough hanko , finished hanko, waste chips, and sweepings 
of ivory dust. The chips used to go to Hong Kong to be made 
into small jewelry such as earrings and beads. No more, said 
Takaichi-san, due to recent trade restrictions. But the powder 
was still used in Japan for fertilizer and in the preparation of a 
few folk medicines. Throughout the Far East, many people held 
that ivory purified the blood while serving as a general tonic. 
Boiled with meat in soup, it was also taken as a remedy for ir- 
ritated eyes. 

Other boxes contained sheep horn from China that had been 
melted down to a gluey consistency and reprocessed into amber- 
colored hanko cylinders. Takaichi-san was going to affix ivory 
heads to them. He planned to do the same with reprocessed cow 
horn, natural buffalo horn, and boxwood, thereby stretching 
out his supply of ivory as long as possible. I imagined he would 
find some way to keep going. After all, a few decades earlier, the 
main business of the Takaichi Ivory Company had been making 
ivory cigarette holders. 

ICjlPjlEflCjlljlCpPilCilCiltalCjlCilla 

Lately, conservationists had put a lot of effort into trying to ana- 
lyze the Japanese view of the living world. Why was this nation 
so willing to keep accumulating ivory when to do so was to visit 
disaster upon elephants? Why was it continuing to lead the way 
in knocking down the globe’s tropical rainforests for hardwood, 
threatening the richest of all terrestrial ecosystems, whose resi- 
dents include both elephants and native peoples? Why was Japan 
still attacking great whales, dolphins, and sea turtles? And, while 
it was at it, the rest of the open ocean community, first through 
its huge fishing fleets and factory ships and secondly through 
drift nets, mile-long curtains of death hung vertically from floats 
and loosed to sweep through the sea wherever currents carry 
them, tangling and killing everything in their path? Aren’t these 



Hi The Fate of the Elephant 


people who strive for the perfect expression of a dragonfly in a 
brush stroke? A moonrise through plum blossoms in haiku 
verse? Don’t they teach courses to pass on venerable techniques 
of flower arranging? Isn’t Japan where Zen monks might sit for 
hours by a stream contemplating the pattern of moss on stone? 

Yes. In gardens and parks, as in poetry, painting, and the ex- 
quisite ceramics and sculpture of this island nation, nature is 
nurtured and praised. Japan is indeed synonymous with an ex- 
tremely refined appreciation of nature. However, the operative 
term here is not nature but extremely refined, as epitomized by 
the stunted, root-starved, strapped, and carefully twisted little 
trees called bonsai, such as ringed Koetsu’s patio. Wild things 
and places apart from the human sphere are something else 
again. Japanese culture has not traditionally accorded them 
much sympathy or respect. Then again, neither has the West. 

Judgments about other societies are dangerous to make and 
rarely fair, so I would be glad to avoid going beyond what I’ve 
already said. Besides, I really don’t think I need to. Japan is plac- 
ing exceptional pressures on the biosphere just now not because 
of some rapacious streak in the national character, and not be- 
cause its citizens are exceptionally greedy, but simply because 
the Japanese are humans and their country has an exceptional 
concentration of capital and technology at the moment. Japan is 
only doing what the United States did as it spearheaded the In- 
dustrial Age, what Europe did during its colonial Age of Em- 
pire, and what the Moghuls and China and Rome each did in 
their respective heydays, when they had the edge in money, or- 
ganization, and know-how. 

With a population of about 120 million on an archipelago 
whose total acreage is roughly the same as that of California, Ja- 
pan had been importing 70 percent of the ivory in the world 
through much of the past decade and using 70 percent of that for 
hanko. Unless my calculations are off, this means that around 
half of the elephants taken through the height of the slaughter 
died to make finger-size chops so that the citizens of Japan could 
have one more way to display their affluence. I was wrong to 
think I had understood what had driven the ivory trade through 



Javan 123 

history. It wasn’t a compulsion to own and cherish something of 
transcendent beauty. To a far greater extent, it was the desire to 
gain in social status. Acquiring ivory as a symbol of wealth and 
rank was just one more form of the same old one-upmanship 
practiced by all but a few human groups — and other hierarchical 
primates. Unfortunately, this form encouraged the annihilation 
of the grandest land mammal still in existence. 

An estimated 700,000 elephants had been destroyed during 
the 1980s. Traditions (that word brought up so often by the Jap- 
anese) passed on through generations by the matriarchs had been 
obliterated as well. The social structure of the survivors was a 
shambles. This is not to mention the toll of rangers and other 
law enforcement officials, the destabilization and corruption of 
governments, and the consequent degradation of national parks, 
preserves, and other biologically rich areas. And the toll of 
poachers’ lives as well. Hanko . . . Yes, this transaction is now 
official. Uromara-san has put his chop on it. By the way, did you 
notice that chop? Ivory, and such a flawless piece. Very nice. 
Everyone seems to be getting one. I must look into it for 
myself. . . . 

I had come a long way to rediscover the banality of evil. 

li^c^cjni^csicniifiPjiPpiq iPiiPn ci' 

A close parallel exists between the modern ivory crisis and the 
last great spasm of wholesale elephant killing. That one lasted 
from the middle of the nineteenth century until around 1930, at 
which time game laws and preserves began to be widely insti- 
tuted. Actually, much of the hysteria went out of the market as 
early as 1914, as the price of ivory collapsed with the onset of 
World War I. Until then, between 25,000 and 100,000 elephants 
per year were being taken, the average probably being about 
50,000 to 60,000. Missionary and explorer David Livingstone 
estimated that 44,000 elephants were taken to supply just the En- 
glish markets in 1870. In terms of tusks, the worldwide take 
doubled from 500 tons in 1800 to roughly 1000 tons annually 
through the latter half of that century. 



224 The Fate of the Elephant 

Why? What was the bulk of the ivory used for back then? In 
an excellent recent article for Audubon magazine, Richard Con- 
niff provided the answer in the title: “When the Music in our 
Parlors Brought Death to Darkest Africa.” Most of the ele- 
phants that died did so to supply the raw material for piano keys. 
The next most common use of ivory involved another enter- 
tainment that became popular in Victorian parlors — billiards. 
The balls were made of elephant teeth. 

Conniff lists some of the other principal uses of ivory at the 
time: “. . . combs, of course, and cutlery handles . . . page 
markers, letter openers, erasable reminder sheets, business 
cards, domino pieces, fold-out toothpicks, cufflinks, collar but- 
tons, nit combs (small and fine-toothed for picking lice and their 
eggs out of the hair), ‘Congress-folders’ for creasing paper, and 
spatula-like ‘flour-triers’ used in checking flour for worms. 
Scraps were sold, or burned to make ivory black, which copper- 
plate printers used in their ink. Ivory dust was . . . prized as fer- 
tilizer. . . . The workers in factories learned to shave a tusk into 
sheets, like paper, for painters of miniature portraits. (In 1851 
one of these sheets, fourteen inches wide and fifty-two feet long, 
was sent to the World’s Fair in London and hung from the dome 
of the Crystal Palace.)” 

More ivory went into making barrettes, hairpins, hat pins, 
jewelry of all kinds and boxes to put it in, snuff boxes, tissue 
dispensers, and so forth. Accessories and more accessories — 
mainly nonessential personal and household items, nearly all of 
which could have been made of other materials. Before long, 
many would be replaced by mass-produced plastic versions. 

But nothing can equal ivory for piano keys, said the salesmen. 
Nothing else combines such smoothness with a porosity that of- 
fers just enough friction to prevent slipping, especially when 
slightly perspiring fingers begin to fly up and down the octaves. 
There is truth to that, or was, before modern advances in syn- 
thetic materials. Yet the factors underlying the piano’s surge of 
popularity had little to do with the qualities of ivory for concert- 
level playing. They had to do with the Industrial Revolution and 
the aspirations of the burgeoning middle class. Ivory was what 



Japan 223 

keyboards happened to be made of at the time that a national 
mania for the piano, as Conniff describes it, swept the United 
States. Europe, notably England, experienced the same fad, 
though not quite as intensely. 

The Industrial Revolution was creating a great deal of pur- 
chasing power while simultaneously making it possible to man- 
ufacture pianos quickly and relatively cheaply. The middle class 
could now partake of goods and leisure activities once restricted 
to the wealthier, more genteel social strata. A piano in the parlor 
was a sure sign of upward mobility. All at once, it seemed every 
well-brought-up woman in Victorian society was expected to 
learn to play one, and every woman wished to appear well- 
brought-up. Men, too, were encouraged to add piano playing to 
their social skills. Production of pianos in the United States 
grew from 9000 annually in 1852 to 22,000 annually by i860 to 
350,000 in 1910, at which time one American in every 260 was 
buying a piano every year. Piano purchases per household began 
to taper off after that, along with Victorian lifestyles. 

Bringing death to darkest Africa refers to more than the 
deaths of elephants. Before pointing out that a pound and a half 
of ivory went into each keyboard, Conniff quotes explorer 
Henry Stanley’s estimate that every pound of ivory “has cost the 
life of a man, woman, or child” in Africa. Although Arab coun- 
tries and many of the African tribes themselves had long dealt in 
captive labor, the slave trade became a truly major industry only 
after colonial European powers began directly exploiting Afri- 
can resources during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 
many cases, tusks were what the traders wanted most; enslaving 
people was merely the most expedient way to transport the teeth 
great distances through trackless countrysides. Arab traders, 
who continued to control the main trading operations, some- 
times captured slaves only to ransom them for ivory. Then they 
would snatch more slaves to haul the tusks out. Once at the 
coast, both tusk and transporter were sold, the tusk typically 
fetching at least twice as much as the person who had carried it. 

The European colonial powers were ako, of course, compet- 
ing for territory and resources in the Americas. Some of the na- 



226 The Fate of the Elephant 

tivc Indians of Central and South America had kept slaves. 
Abruptly, they were made slaves themselves. But imported Eu- 
ropean diseases quickly decimated their numbers, and Catholic 
missionaries were having a hard time convincing brutalized In- 
dians of the superiority of the white man’s God. The priests and 
white overseers went to Charles I of Spain and got him to permit 
the import of black slaves from Africa to provide labor instead. 
Portugal followed suit. The era of plantation slavery was soon 
under way, fueled by Europe’s growing consumption of sugar 
from newly established cane fields in Central America and the 
Caribbean. Before long, Europe’s sweet tooth and the spread of 
plantations through the southern United States had combined 
with the ivory trade to drain Africa of elephants and humans 
alike. 

David Livingstone reported that only about one in five slaves 
captured in the interior made it to the sea alive. On some routes, 
he figured, the ratio was more like one in nine. The hellish 
stories have been told many times of routine starvation, torture, 
and rape; of how the sick and weak were prodded and beaten 
forward until they collapsed. When they fell, the yokes some- 
times broke their necks. If alive but unable to rise, captives were 
quickly slain as an incentive to the rest. In the early days of the 
slave trade, elephant incisors weighing ioo-plus pounds were 
common. No one would have bothered with the little tusks 
poachers sometimes trade their own lives for today. As late as the 
nineteenth century, the average tusk weight was still more than 
sixty pounds. When a mother carrying a baby showed signs of 
having trouble carrying a heavy tusk as well, you can guess 
which weight was disposed of. 

And all this was before the trials of a voyage across the sea 
with the slaves stacked like cordwood in filthy holds for weeks 
on end. Still chained, of course. The shackles were thick and 
heavy. Once England took a stand against slavery, British ves- 
sels often patrolled Africa’s coasts to intercept slave ships. But an 
alert slaving crew could begin tossing iron-weighted slaves over 
the side, and they in turn would drag down the others. Thus, by 
the time the British sailors came aboard for an inspection, all the 



Japan 227 

human evidence would be on its way to the bottom of the sea. 
A typical slaving ship might hold 300 to 400 captives. 

Between the start of the sixteenth century and about 1 870, the 
number of Africans shipped to the New World was on the order 
of 10 million, some experts believe. Five times as many black 
slaves as white immigrants came across the Atlantic before 1 820. 
Their free labor not only developed the Americas but garnered 
tremendous wealth for the colonial European powers and, later, 
the United States. This capital accumulation helped set the stage 
for still more rapid economic development, including the In- 
dustrial Revolution. 

One of the two leading industrial consumers of ivory in the 
United States was Pratt, Read & Co. The company’s chief prod- 
uct was piano keys. According to ConnifF, co-owners Julius 
Pratt and George Read were both staunch abolitionists. Pratt’s 
church group sponsored antislavery speakers. Read even housed 
runaway slaves. Most Westerners did not really understand how 
ivory was brought out of Africa. Maybe these two men didn’t 
either. Yet if that were the case, maybe they didn’t try too hard 
to find out, for they did business with dealers who knew Africa 
intimately. 

History can be a study in irony. England led the way in out- 
lawing slavery in 1833, and the United States fought a civil war 
from 1861 through 1865 to expunge the practice. And yet the 
popularity of pianos and ivory continued to increase by leaps 
and bounds in both countries afterward. Slaves still carried most 
of the ivory to market. Only now, the captives were sold to 
Cuba or Brazil instead of England, France, or the U.S. A. And, 
of course, the elephants still died in huge numbers. As they grew 
more scarce, the price of ivory increased, which only made it 
more desirable and prestigious. 

The Arab-dominated slave trading network finally collapsed 
in 1890. But by then, patterns of wanton ivory consumption in 
the West were so entrenched that the pace of elephant slaughter 
never faltered. In fact, it quickened. The main difference was 
that the Arab-led bands who had gained tusks from native 
peoples through theft, trade, and force were replaced by profes- 



228 The Fate of the Elephant 


sional hunters. Great White Hunters. They began to systemati- 
cally work over herds the way the buffalo hunters had done in 
North America’s now empty savannas. 

To summarize, the average consumer of a hanko in Japan paid 
little more attention to the consequences of his or her purchase 
than the consumer of a piano had in the previous century. Well 
before the turn of that century, travelers were already reporting 
that they could cross long stretches of East Africa without 
seeing a single elephant. Between 1608 and i6i2, two centuries 
before British explorers penetrated the upper Nile, Dutch Boers 
were exporting more than 25 tons of ivory per year from South 
Africa. Only a few hundred elephants remained there by the end 
of the nineteenth century. Portuguese traders wiped out the 
coastal populations of elephants in Angola early on. Other trad- 
ers and slavers from all over Europe had depleted populations of 
elephants and people along the coast farther north — the Slave 
Coast, with what are now Nigeria, Togo, and Benin at the cen- 
ter. So the Great White Hunters had to move on toward the very 
core of the continent, then generally referred to as the Congo, 
now the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, and 
Zaire, the former Belgian Congo. An estimated 585,000 ele- 
phants were taken from Zaire alone between 1889 and 1950. 


The latest bulletin from Kenya was that beefed-up antipoaching 
troops with G-3 semiautomatic rifles and special training from 
British commandos had killed thirty-two poachers during the 
past ten weeks, while not one elephant had been lost. Such news 
was getting well disseminated, in part because Kenya’s new na- 
tional parks director, Richard Leakey, hired a Washington, 
D.C., public relations firm to help do it. Spreading the word 
that Kenya’s parks were being brought back under control was 
essential to reassure potential tourists after the spate of shootings 
by bandits there. Leakey was being called the Rambo of con- 
servation. Some meant this as a compliment; others considered 
it a sorry comment that Kenya’s most imaginative solution to 



Japan 229 

poaching appeared to be more killing. Without a doubt, many 
in the poaching gangs were ruthless, mercenary thugs. But 
many more were simply poor, rural people who served as pawns 
for corrupt officials and wealthy international ivory dealers. 

Then another bulletin from Kenya: George Adamson had 
been killed by shifta. A former Kenya park warden, George was 
the husband of Joy Adamson, author of Born Free, the interna- 
tionally acclaimed account of how the Adamsons raised Elsa the 
lioness and other young lions whose families had died or been 
killed. Years after the appearance of the book — and subsequent 
movie — Joy Adamson was murdered by a local man, who tried 
to make the killing look like the work of a lion. Later, George 
moved with his remaining big cats to the north of Kenya, where 
he strove to return them to the wild. Over the years, Somali 
poaching gangs and herders swept the area almost clean of ele- 
phants and other wildlife, including, no doubt, most of Adam- 
son’s lions. Unable to enforce the law in this region, officials 
repeatedly warned Adamson to leave. He ignored their advice, 
convinced that his lions might still be out there somewhere in 
need of him, that the once teeming wild might yet be restored. 
Now he was dead as well. 

liniKirai ^ciiciicsici icniqi qi ic i iLr 

With the huge shipment of suspect ivory from Hong Kong held 
up at customs in Japan, rumor had it that large quantities of 
mastodon and mammoth ivory from Siberia were being shipped 
in to make hanko and ornaments. Hong Kong’s own stocks of 
ivory had finally been officially weighed and documented as part 
of an international effort to assess the scope of the ivory trade. 
Surely much was hidden away from the officials’ eyes; it always 
was in Hong Kong. Even so, the total came to $oo-some tons of 
raw ivory plus at least 170 tons of worked ivory. Hong Kong 
was whining loudly about being stuck with so much, now that 
its past trading partners had grown cautious about imports. The 
dealers wanted an exemption from the mounting bans and re- 
strictions until they could liquidate this supply they had accu- 



J30 The Fate op the Elephant 

muUted in anticipation of ever-rising prices. Holding the 
from at least 60,000 to 70,000 elephants, the great majority 
surely killed illegally, Hong Kong was appealing to the inter- 
national community’s sense of fairness. And I was headed for 
Hong Kong. 



EIGHT 


Hong Kong 


15151515 ' In 1989, quite a number of Vietnamese boat 
people made their way to Hong Kong, only to be incarcerated in 
an island holding camp pending a forced return to their country. 
They were rioting as I arrived late in August. With a population 
of 5.4 million, Hong Kong already averaged well over 13,000 
people for each of its 410 square miles. That didn’t leave much 
room for more. Still, you might have thought people in this 
British crown colony would be especially sympathetic to refu- 
gees. Under the terms of a ninety-nine-year lease drawn up in 
1898, mainland China is due to take the port back from the Brit- 
ish in 1997. Three out of every four residents of Hong Kong say 
they want out before then. But, like the Vietnamese, they arc 
having problems finding a country that will accept them. The 
passport offices have been mobbed with men and women com- 
peting for the limited number of special openings made available 
elsewhere in the United Kingdom for immigrants from Hong 
Kong. 

For a while, the People’s Republic of China under Mao Tse- 
Tung’s successors had shown signs of growing flexibility and 
openness, even of promoting private enterprise, and Hong 
Kong’s citizenry had relaxed a little, thinking the transition 
might not be so rough after all. Then came the crackdown by 
hard-liners that included the shooting of prodemocracy student 
demonstrators in Tiannamen Square. Hong Kong, bastion of 
freewheeling capitalism, a consumer paradise with a skyline of 
grand glass towers in the latest architectyral styles, was scared 
witless. Citizens and corporations wanted ways to get them- 
selves and their capital out now. The United States had more 



33* The Fate of the Elephant 

than a passing interest in the drama. Having long been both a 
key supplier of raw materials to Hong Kong and a key consumer 
of its finished products, taking about a third of the total, the 
United States was also responsible for about 45 percent of the to- 
tal foreign investment in Hong Kong itself. 

The crackdown devastated what had been a rapidly growing 
tour business within China. As a major staging point for excur- 
sions to the mainland, Hong Kong had seen tourism suddenly 
drop off 25 percent. Between the decline in visitors on shopping 
sprees and tightening international restrictions on ivory, retail 
stores were beginning to post hastily made signs in their win- 
dows. Thqy read: “Ivory Sale!” “Special Bargains on Ivory,” 
“Low Discount Prices on Ivory,” and even “50% Off on All 
Ivory.” 


LSI'QISISIBISISISISISISISIS 

• 

Consisting of the Kowloon Peninsula, strips of the Chinese 
mainland, Hong Kong Island, and more than 230 smaller islands 
nearby, Hong Kong claims to be the third-largest port in the 
world. For a long time, the archipelago supported only scattered 
fishing villages. It was also the haunt of sea pirates known as 
hoklos, which may be why other ships seldom used the area even 
though it is the snuggest harbor for many a sailing day along the 
typhoon-ridden outer Chinese coast. At the head of a nearby 
bay, the British occupied a segregated trading depot at Guang- 
zhou (Canton). This was the only place they were permitted on 
Chinese soil during the early nineteenth century, and they were 
busily acquiring silk, porcelain, and tea. Especially tea. Lots and 
lots of tea. The craving for this stimulant — not to mention the 
pomp and ritual of tea ceremonies — was at its zenith through- 
out the British Empire Unhappily for the British, the insular 
Chinese wanted little from them in return in the way of goods. 
Instead, the trading monopoly, or hong, with whom the British 
dealt demanded payment in silver. Lots and lots of silver. 

To overcome this bothersome trade imbalance, the British 
started pushing opium. “Foreign mud” the Chinese called it. 



Hong Kong 233 


Portuguese traders had already made the drug fairly available in 
China during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it 
was used largely for medicinal purposes. The British East India 
Company now brought tremendous quantities from its colonial 
holdings in India and made this opium cheap enough that the 
Chinese were soon hooked by the thousands. In 1834, 16,000 
chests of opium moved through Canton, and the flow of silver 
was already beginning to reverse in favor of Great Britain. By 
1839, the number of opium chests had surged to 40,000. 

Facing bankruptcy as well as massive addiction of its popu- 
lace, China seized British facilities in Canton, along with 20,000 
chests of opium. The foreigners beat a retreat to Macao, across 
the bay from Hong Kong. Once a fair port, Macao had suffered 
badly from siltation by the Pearl River due to deforestation and 
overly intensive farming upstream. The British demanded a bet- 
ter trading site. Skirmishes off the Hong Kong archipelago led 
to the First Opium War, from 1839 to 1842, with Hong Kong 
Island finally being ceded to the British. They later expanded 
their holdings and arranged the ninety-nine-year lease. Some 
authorities argue that although a variety of modern forces came 
into play about the same time, the widespread opium habit fos- 
tered by Britain played a substantial role in weakening and even- 
tually bringing down the 4500-year-old Chinese Empire. 

While expanding as a trading nucleus, Hong Kong continued 
to have its share of pirates. At first, most were simply well- 
armed raiders. But over time, many developed smuggling rings 
that dealt in opium, gold, guns, and anything else that was either 
illegal to transport or subject to stiff customs duties. I was told 
that for a while during the 1950s, women coming from Macao 
were required by Hong Kong customs officers to jump off a 
platform two feet high. The idea was to shake loose any sub- 
stantial quantities of gold carried in the vagina. Dope was still a 
prime smuggling commodity at the time of my visit. In addi- 
tion to hard drugs, ordinary cigarettes proved immensely prof- 
itable to sneak by customs, since tobacco was heavily taxed and 
most adult Chinese males were addicted, creating an enormous 
demand. 



* x $4 T** Fat* op thb elephant 

To%cx 5 cici •with Taiwan and North Korea, modern-day Hong 
Kong was also a hub of trade in illegal wildlife. Hong Kong in 
particular moved rare species and contraband wildlife products 
in and out of China, from rare reptiles and birds to bear gall 
bladders and musk deer glands. And Hong Kong was where the 
bulk of the world’s raw ivory arrived and was reexported, com- 
ing and going via legal channels and otherwise. Japan may have 
been the largest single consumer among nations, but most of the 
ivory it obtained passed through Hong Kong first. 

The ivory stockpiled in Hong Kong at the time of my visit 
was valued at around $n billion Hong Kong, or roughly U.S. 
$1.5 billion, and a high-ranking official was touring Europe and 
the United States in an effort to persuade other governments to 
let Hong Kong unload its elephant teeth hoard. Several Hong 
Kong banks were rumored to be holding piles of tusks m their 
vaults as collateral for loans they had issued. 

It wasn’t often that Hong Kong traders — or bankers — got 
stuck in a big way with unwanted merchandise. But they had 
not bargained on an orchestrated effort by international conser- 
vation organizations to expose the full extent of the current 
elephant-killing orgy. Open a magazine or newspaper, and there 
were pictures of paramilitary poachers playing with models of 
AK-47 rifles carved from ivory, and those faceless elephants 
with strings of connective tissue all but falling onto the page, 
and advertisements by conservation groups with the admonish- 
ment Don't buy ivory. The chain reaction of the public in the 
West caught the dealers flat-footed. 

Not only was it illegal nowadays to return to Europe or the 
United States with ivory from a Hong Kong trip, it was defi- 
nitely getting to be uncool. Whereas just the other day, it 
seemed, ivory had been a mark of high fashion and disposable 
income, Westerners were starting to view it, as they did fur 
coats, as unfashionable and a sign of poor style. Don’t buy ivory. 
Don’t buy it. Don’t sell it. Don’t wear it. 

Unlike the situation in Japan, ivory was highly conspicuous 
along the sweltering streets of Hong Kong. Camera and video 
shop, watch shop, gold watch band and necklace shop, imitation 



Hong Kong a)5 

Ralph Lauren polo shirt shop, ivory shop. You stopped, looked 
around a while, left, and passed another camera shop, imitation 
Rolex watch shop, purse and wallet shop, then another ivory 
shop stuffed with elephant tooth wares. First, and always prom- 
inently displayed in the window, was the tooth itself — maybe 
two or three big, perfectly shaped tusks — polished and often 
capped on one or both ends with gold- or silver-plated, ornately 
worked metal. Smaller whole tusks — teenage elephant teeth and 
baby elephant teeth — were mounted upright on a fancy base. 
And then, the worked ivory: Magic balls, the carved spheres 
within spheres from China. Miniature scenes with pagodas and 
maidens on arching bridges and romantic cloud worlds carved 
in minute detail from a single tusk. Japanese-style figurines and 
netsuke of a quality created with the budget-conscious shopper 
in mind. And the ubiquitous train of elephants on the march, 
with each animal holding the tail of the one in front with its 
trunk, the entire group also carved from a single tusk. Addi- 
tional shelves were crowded with small, copulating human fig- 
ures — action figures. They were another great favorite and easy 
on the pocketbook. After a while, it all began to look the same. 
Because it was the same. The same carvers had turned out the 
same little fornicating people day after day. The same duplicat- 
ing machine had crafted those graceful goddesses in flowing 
robes by the score. 

In all, Hong Kong was said to have about 3000 stores that sold 
ivory. It was not moving well there, but it was moving. Mexi- 
cans were buying fairly heavily, several shop owners said. Oth- 
ers mentioned Taiwanese, saying (with no small amount of 
envy) that they have all kinds of money these days. No, the 
prime buyers were still Arabs — Saudis and Iranians — others in- 
sisted. At still other shops, I was told the main ivory purchasers 
were Colombians; God knows they have plenty of dollars, the 
shop owners agreed. (I remembered reading that more money 
flowed out of the United States for cocaine than for any other 
single imported consumer item — a bit like China in the hey- 
day of British opium.) A couple of storekeepers even men- 
tioned Nepalese as important buyers. A shop owner's conclusion 



23<$ The Fate of the Elephant 

as to who were the big purchasers of ivory seemed based 
upon whichever nationality had last stopped in to spend an im- 
pressive sum. 

Hong Kong citizens were also buying some ivory, I was in- 
formed. These were people who had won permission to emi- 
grate to another part of the British Commonwealth — Canada in 
particular had agreed to accept a large share — and they were per- 
mitted to take ivory with them as a personal possession. For 
some families and businesses, this could be used as a way to spirit 
wealth out of the country without bumping up against laws de- 
signed to prevent massive flights of capital from Hong Kong. 

I did notice a number of Taiwanese browsing while I was in 
different ivory shops. Beyond that, the most striking thing 
about the clientele was its absence. Store owners had plenty of 
time to talk between customers. 

“We haven’t slowed down all that much in business,” insisted 
Edmund Ho, export manager of the Sovereign Company, 
which specialized in ivory and metal sculptures. “The Taiwanese 
come in and don’t even look at the price. But things are chang- 
ing. Almost 60 percent of our sales used to come from Ameri- 
cans and Europeans. Japanese still buy, but they must slip the 
ivory back into their country now. You, yourself, could proba- 
bly bring back small to medium pieces and take your chances. 
But you would have to take your chances.” Edmund Ho was one 
of perhaps three or four ivory dealers in all of Asia and India 
who let on that it might be illegal for me to take ivory back to 
the United States, and I talked with hundreds. 

My standard approach was to poke around an ivory shop for 
a while, admiring the goods. Then I would chat up the person 
behind the counter, eventually stating that I was an American 
citizen and had heard that ivory was no longer legal to take 
home with me. Was that true, 1 would ask? Almost invari- 
ably, I would be assured that I could walk out with anything — 
except possibly the largest pieces. A common line was that it was 
fine to take whatever 1 happened to be looking at; I should just 
avoid the grand tusks and showy composite sculptures — the 
multithousand-dollar stuff the shopkeeper could tell I had no 



Hong Kong 237 

hope of affording anyway. Those were restricted. Are you sure 
about the others? I can take them home legally? 

Yes, yes. Okay, no problem. Only big pieces are illegal. 

While “Don’t Buy Ivory” signs and stickers proliferated in 
the West, Nathan Ivory in Kowloon had a sign in the window 
that read “Buy Ivory — Help Save Elephants.” Below this con- 
fusing request was a smaller-print summary of arguments pur- 
porting that elephants were overcrowded and in need of culling 
and that the ivory sold from culling operations supported con- 
servation work. There was no mention of the fact that South 
Africa and Zimbabwe, the main proponents of the shoot-them- 
for-their-own-good school, were among a bare handful of na- 
tions whose elephant populations were not declining; they had 
already declined, and the remnants were mainly confined to re- 
serves with scant room for the giants to grow again in numbers. 
Nor was there mention that little or none of the ivory inside 
most shops actually came from those countries anyway. 

The sign on the window hinted at the intense propaganda bat- 
tle being waged worldwide between the majority of conserva- 
tionists, who were now requesting CITES to place the African 
elephant on Appendix I of the Endangered Species List, where 
its cousin the Asian elephant had been since 1977, and those who 
felt the African elephant should remain on Appendix II, permit- 
ting trade in legally obtained ivory to continue. 

Since every dealer already claimed to be handling only legally 
obtained ivory, it was difficult to see how a continuation of Ap- 
pendix II would be anything but a continuation of the ongoing 
holocaust. Not so, argued the pro-ivory faction. With better en- 
forcement, regular culling of healthy populations could produce 
a sustained yield of tusks. These could in turn sustain a healthy 
ivory industry. It was not fair to penalize countries with good 
wildlife-management programs and viable elephant herds for 
the corruption and mismanagement that had led other countries 
to massacre their giants. 

South Africa loudly voiced this opinion despite the fact that 
high-ranking members of the South African military had been 
caught red-handed more than once smuggling tusks into their 



238 The Fate of the Elephant 

country from Angola and were believed to be involved in bring- 
ing illicit tusks from both Botswana and Namibia as well. Once 
in South Africa, the tusks were documented as having been le- 
gally culled from elephants in the country’s best-known national 
park, Kruger. They were then shipped to Asia through trade 
connections the military had established with Hong Kong. 

More confusion: not far from Nathan Ivory, at the Shing On 
Ivory Factory showroom and shop, I spied a plaque on the wall 
in English telling prospective buyers that it Was all right for 
American citizens to buy ivory. Just below the plaque was an of- 
ficial statement to that effect bearing the letterhead of the U.S. 
Fish & Wildlife Service. Or so it appeared. If you stepped close 
enough to read the small print, though, you discovered that the 
only ivory items approved for import were ivory from hunting 
trophies and personal items that were part of a household move 
to the United States. 

Lee Chat, Shing On Factory director and chairman of the 
Hong Kong & Kowloon Ivory Manufacturers Association, 
spoke with me from behind the counter while his daughter Ade- 
line translated. “Companies may try to keep up appearances and 
tell you they still have good ivory sales,” said Lee Chat. “But I 
know that for the last three months, from June until now, our 
business has been only 30 percent of what it used to be. For some 
shops, business is off as much as 90 percent. Casual tourists take 
only a fraction now. We rely upon direct exports. South America 
is still a good buyer. Also the Middle East. But there are going 
to be many ivory people out of work before long, the way 
things are looking. We all await the ruling of CITES for our 
future.” 

The fateful CITES meeting would be held in Lausanne, Swit- 
zerland, in October, only a couple of months away. Appendix I 
or Appendix II? The decision would be made by a vote of all the 
ioo-odd member countries. A preliminary meeting held in July 
in Gabarone, the capital of Botswana, had served mainly to em- 
phasize how far apart the two camps were. Lee Chat had at- 
tended. He told me that he and other ivory dealers were sure the 
conservationists were seriously underestimating the number of 
elephants left in Africa when they claimed the total was no more 



Hong Kong 239 

than 650,000; there were officials who thought the true number 
was more than a million. “African countries are poor and un- 
developed,” he said. “Ivory is an important natural resource. We 
can help them develop.” He also said the representatives from 
mainland China let him know that if the October vote favored 
Appendix I, their country would probably take an exception — 
that is, China would refuse to abide by the decision and would 
continue to deal in ivory. Zimbabwe and South Africa were 
threatening to do the same. 

By Lee Chat’s reckoning, China was importing an average of 
sixty tons of ivory a year. Roughly half of that came through 
Hong Kong. Rising prices had temporarily slowed China’s pur- 
chases of raw ivory. Yet sources I consulted elsewhere were rea- 
sonably sure that China had been paid in tusks for a number of 
large-scale, quasi— foreign aid construction projects in various 
African countries. Some 20 percent of the ivory goods coming 
into Hong Kong these days were finished carvings from China. 
Nearby Guangzhou was probably the center of the modem 
Chinese ivory industry. Additional details were scarce, but Lee 
Chat thought the country might still have anywhere from 4000 
to 5000 carvers. They worked with wood and stone as well as 
with ivory in enormous factory buildings. 

Chinese carvers specialized in detailed, time-consuming work, 
notably the magic balls. Lee Chat had heard of up to thirty balls 
nested within one another. Three men typically took forty days 
to carve a typical piece with between ten and twenty magic balls. 
The first man turned an ivory block into a large sphere. The sec- 
ond man fashioned the elaborate dragon pattern that generally 
decorated the outermost ball. The third man carved out the in- 
ternal balls with a specially designed, more-or-less L-shaped 
tool, cutting each new ball through holes made in all the ones 
above it as part of their overall design. Artisans have been work- 
ing ivory in China for at least a thousand years, far longer than 
in Japan. Of course, China long had elephants of its own. Be- 
tween twenty and perhaps 250 beleaguered survivors may still 
roam forests of the upper Mekong River Basin in the Yunnan 
Province, near China’s border with Laos. 

Lee Chat was born in China in 1933. He emigrated to Hong 



240 The Fate of the Elephant 


Kong after the close of World War II in search of work and be- 
gan carving ivory at age fourteen. He served as an apprentice for 
the next five years, compensated at first with two Hong Kong 
dollars per month and four days of vacation per year. He contin- 
ued carving until 1970, at which point he was able to open his 
own shop with money he had saved. Of the thousand or so ivory 
carvers in Hong Kong who had been working full time, 70 per- 
cent were presently idled by the slowdown in trade, he guessed. 

Estimates of the number of carvers in Hong Kong ran as high 
as 4000 to 5000, on the order of China. But those figures in- 
cluded part-time and apprentice ivory carvers and artisans who 
worked in other materials, mainly stone. Moreover, many 
Hong Kong carvers worked at home, where they could keep 
their own hours — usually longer than office hours, since most 
got paid by the piece — and turn the polishing chores over to 
wives and children. 

In the Shamshuipo district of Kowloon, ivory carver Lee Chi 
ushered me up several flights of stairs to his workplace, a small, 
dimly lit room shared by a couple of other carvers. The view 
was of a narrow street running between similar high-rise apart- 
ment buildings and webs of electric lines. His specialty was the 
elephant group walking trunk to tail. The tusk he was at work 
on had fifteen elephants emerging from the dentine and would 
represent five days’ total labor by the time Lee Chi was finished. 
Also originally from mainland China, Lee Chi had been carving 
for forty-four years, beginning at age fifteen. Now he had no 
idea what the future held. 

“We have five or six orders left to fill,” he said, looking up 
from his workbench past the half-glasses he wore and wiping 
ivory dust from his fingertips onto his T-shirt. “After that, noth- 
ing. Instead of six or seven shops giving us orders as usual, there 
is just one now. It may close soon, any time. We had six people 
working in this room just a month ago. Half of them have left 
already. You can see how it is. People who want to save the el- 
ephants should punish the poachers, not us. Hong Kong had ten 
carvers who could do Chinese-style magic balls, and eight have 
quit. We had dozens of people carving elephant chains like this 
once. 1 am the only one who is still making them. What will I do 



Hong Kong 241 

after I fill the last order? Working in stone is not as good for 
money or for art, and it causes diseases of the lung. Finding an- 
other kind of job in Hong Kong is not so difficult, because 
people are leaving. The problem is that I am too old and other 
jobs don’t pay as much.” 

I asked what the best part was about his job, his art, and what 
he would miss most if he had to abandon it. “Making money,” 
replied Lee Chi. “It’s a job to make money.” An honest enough 
answer. A good ivory carver could make $10,000 Hong Kong 
(U.S. $1300) per month, three to four times the average wage. I 
turned to the thirty-seven-year-old man at the next workbench. 
So Kang Sang. A carver for twenty years, he specialized in small, 
inexpensive birds and flowers. He occasionally made them from 
hippo teeth, which were very hard ivory and subject to cracking 
but still adequate for minor pieces. 1 asked him what the future 
would be for his work. “No future,” he said. “I came to Hong 
Kong to learn carving and studied five years under the man who 
used to sit at this table. It doesn’t really take that long to learn 
what we do. It was a way to get apprentices to help the master 
for as long as possible for less money. People stopped entering 
the trade, so the time of apprenticeship was cut to three years. 
But all that is behind. I am leaving the industry before the mid- 
autumn festival.” 

Earlier, David Melville, the World Wildlife Fund’s ivory trade 
specialist in Hong Kong, had told me that he couldn’t get any 
carvers or their bosses at the factories to try samples of a new 
synthetic ivory made from a petroleum base, though it might 
help preserve their craft if accepted by buyers. Nor was there 
any interest in shifting to Phytelephax macrocarpa, the so-called 
vegetable ivory derived from a South American palm. (Later, in 
1991, Sakai Research Laboratories of Japan announced the in- 
vention of an artificial ivory made from whole eggs and milk 
that it claimed was virtually indistinguishable from the real 
thing. But this substitute hasn’t yet won a following either.) 

Lee Chi thought there should at least be a grace period in 
which Hong Kong could sell its stocks of ivory. Better yet, he 
said, people at the upcoming CITES meeting should agree, to 
buy up all the ivory in Hong Kong and distribute the money to 



i4i The Fete op the Elephant 

dealers and carvers so they could retire on it. “ I hear the World 
Wildlife Fund spends a hundred dollars a day on each elephant , ” 
Lee Chi told me. “Why don't they spend it on us?” 

A hundred dollars a day per elephant for the remaining 
600,000 elephants would be around $22 billion annually. What a 
concept! If conservation groups could claim wealth of that mag- 
nitude, the Endangered Species List would surely not be length- 
ening almost by the hour. Such misinformation about the World 
Wildlife Fund and the financial resources of environmental or- 
ganizations was almost as ludicrous as the theory mentioned by 
one dealer that the whites were conspiring with the blacks 
through all these new restrictions in order to force the yellow 
people out of the ivory trade and take over. 

Yet another ivory dealer outlined what I thought was a much 
more sensible attitude. If you’re looking for someone to blame, 
he said, blame the Poons. Blame the Wangs. Blame the Lais. 
These Hong Kong-based trading families had developed aiyl 
controlled the huge international ivory network. It was they 
who probably did more than anyone else to encourage the ex- 
cesses that had brought down the elephant and were now in the 
process of bringing down the ivory industry. 

The dealer who said this asked that I never use his name. 
Everyone knew about Lee Chat. In an Asia Week expose of the 
ivory industry, the involvement of certain families was men- 
tioned, and it appeared that the information came from Lee 
Chat, since he was the primary dealer interviewed. Soon after- 
ward, Lee Chat received anonymous threats. Then a car was 
driven through the window of his shop — the one at which I had 
met him during my visit. 

According to information gathered through undercover in- 
vestigations by the conservation community, the paterfamilias 
of the Poon family was Poon Chow, owner of the Tat Hing 
Ivory Wares Factory. (I had passed the factory in Kowloon, but 
a sign on the door said that it was temporarily closed.) He helped 
found the Hong Kong & Kowloon Ivory Manufacturers Asso- 
ciation in 1934. These days, Poon was not well. Apparently af- 
flicted by a stroke, he was thought to be living in a flat atop a 
high-rise complex he owned. The active members of this ivory 



Hong Kong 243 

dynasty were son Poon Tat Hong (T. H. Poon), who oversaw 
the Hong Kong operations; son Tony Poon (K. Y. Poon, from 
the Chinese name Poon Kwok Yuen), who ran Poon’s Ivory 
Carving Factory in Hong Kong; George Poon, cither a brother 
or a cousin, based in Paris and connected to French-speaking 
central African countries; Poon Moon Lee, possibly a nephew 
(other sources said he was unrelated), manager of the M. K. Jew- 
elry Company in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and M. K. 
Poon, a partner of T. H. Poon, exact relationship unknown. 
Some said Tony Poon was M. K. Poon’s son. Obviously, the 
trail the investigators followed was a convoluted one. 

That trail led to the following holdings: in addition to Tat 
Hing Ivory and Poon’s Ivory Carving Factory in Hong Kong, 
there was Tat & Company (an ivory retail shop). Tat Hing In- 
vestments, and Kin Ming Ivory Factory. Along with the M. K. 
Jewelry Factory in Dubai, there was the Dubai Ivory Factory. 
Paris had a boutique called Hong Kong-France and Tat Hing 
Ivoire, both managed by George Poon. Macao had Son Ian 
Chop Hau, where T. H. Poon stored tons of ivory in 1986, be- 
fore authorities tightened regulations there. Singapore had Fung 
Ivory Manufacturing Ltd., managed by Mrs. Choy, wife of 
Choy Tat Hing of Dubai, and Kyomi Handicraft and Trading 
Ltd. GBL & Associates in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was also a 
Poon front, as was an ivory factory called Jewelry World, 
opened in Zaire. 

The Hong Kong ivory syndicates were implicated in the fol- 
lowing operations, to name only a few: The transfer of 130 tons 
of ivory from the Republic of Congo to Paris in 1984. Tamper- 
ing with French diplomatic mail. Smuggling ivory in dhows 
from East Africa to Dubai, and then flying the ivory to Zaire, 
where it was given CITES certification and reexported as legal 
ivory. Establishing a route from Dubai to Malaysia and Singa- 
pore. Bringing 17.5 tons of poached ivory into Singapore under 
false papers. Taking illicit ivory out of Sudan. Transporting il- 
legal ivory from Tanzania into China. Manipulating much of the 
illegal trade out of Burundi prior to 1987. Inventing the scam of 
having someone scratch a ring or other design on die base of a 
tusk so that it could be imported without registration to Hong 



244 Thb Fate of thb Elephant 

Kong as “worked” ivory — an expression of craft and artisan- 
ry — rather than raw ivory, thereby wriggling through a loop- 
hole in existing laws. Devising schemes for transferring CITES 
certification from old stocks of ivory to new, smuggled-in ton- 
nage. And claiming a high (40 percent) rate of wastage in carv- 
ing figurines (the average is more like 5 to 10 percent) and selling 
certificates covering the difference to traders with illegal ivory. 

I am passing on allegations. Despite all the poachers shot and 
all the middlemen caught, no one has indisputably proved the 
Poons or other families guilty of any wrongdoing. At one point, 
prominent importer K. T. Wang claimed to control 50 percent of 
the legal ivory trade but steadfastly denied any ties to illegal ac- 
tivities, and he was never proved a liar. 

As the unnamed ivory dealer told me, he and others in Hong 
Kong were reluctant to criticize the ivory syndicates for three 
reasons. First, respect for elder members of the families. Second, 
people feared having their ivory supplies cut off by these pow» 
erful importers. And, third, they grudgingly admired the deal- 
ers’ ability to stay ahead of the game. They never overtly broke 
the rules; they kept redefining them. They followed the Elev- 
enth Commandment: Don’t get caught. They didn’t. (An ex- 
ception was George Poon, indicted for illegally importing ivory 
into Paris after more stringent regulations had gone into effect. 
Still, his getting caught was a mere inconvenience; how serious 
could the threat of a minor fine be to a man with an income re- 
ported by the London-based Environmental Investigation 
Agency to be close to U.S. $1 million per week?) 

The Poons and their fellow traders simply took the old buc- 
caneering tradition of Hong Kong and applied it on a grander 
scale. The British opium dealers of yesteryear would have 
winked and nodded at such goings on. Interestingly, modern 
Hong Kong’s request to be allowed to dispose of its ivory stock- 
piles was eventually granted by Great Britain’s prime minister at 
the time, Margaret Thatcher. She agreed to give Hong Kong six 
months to sell off what it could. 



NINE 


India: 

Theppakadu 


ISISISIS' In 1901, India held 236 million people. Even 
then the country was known for its combination of overcrowd- 
ing and poverty in many regions. Half a century later, as of 
1951, the population stood at 361 million, and by 1981, it was 
685 million. It is already closing in on 900 million as I write. This 
is one-sixth of the entire human population on 2.2 percent of the 
earth’s land surface, or an area approximately one-third the size 
of the United States. It is more humans than yet exist in all of 
Africa, which has closer to 700 million people on 20.2 percent of 
the planet s land surface. 

The fact that India also holds between 35 percent and 50 per- 
cent of the elephants in Asia is at once discouraging and hopeful. 
Discouraging because it shows how fe«v elephants are left. 
Counting those in India, Asian elephants total just 35,000 to 
55,000 in the wild and another 16,000 in captivity. Once spread 
across the largest of continents in the millions, from the Tigris- 
Euphrates fertile crescent in Syria to fairly far north in China, 
the wild population now inhabits areas totaling just 168,000 
square miles, scarcely larger than the state of California. Only 
about 30 percent of that remaining range lies within national 
parks, game sanctuaries, forest reserves, or other kinds of pro- 
tected lands. All the rest is at risk, and so are the elephants in- 
habiting it. For that matter, many of the reserves themselves are 
at risk of being swamped by people. Equally troubling, neither 
the remaining elephant herds nor the ranges they currently in- 



24* The Fatb OF TH! Elbphant 


habit are continuous. On the contrary, they are spread out in bits 
and pieces over India, Southeast Asia, and assorted islands in the 
Indian Ocean claimed by Indonesia and Malaysia. They could 
scarcely be more fragmented. Which makes prospects for the 
long-term survival of Elephas maximus even slimmer. 

The hopeful part is this: it is something of a miracle that India, 
given its current human population, should have room to sup- 
port a single elephant, much less 17,000 to 22,000 in the wild 
plus dose to 3000 to 5000 domestic ones. India, therefore, might 
be able to tell us something important about how to coexist with 
giants in an overcrowded world. 


After entering India at Madras in early September, I flew to Ban- 
galore, a rapidly expanding city of millions in the southern state 
of Karnataka. I had arranged to meet a professor at the Indiap 
Institute of Science in Bangalore who was a leading authority on 
the Asian elephant. His name is Dr. Raman Sukumar. Sukumar 
was in his thirties, tall, slender, and bespectacled. Although he 
had a casual, friendly style, he was also a very thoroughgoing 
scholar. He loved practicing science and teaching science and 
was eager to see that I absorbed his information. We started talk- 
ing elephants from the start and never let up. 

In short order, we were on our way out of the city in his jeep, 
dodging pedestrian hordes, holy cows, and wooden-wheeled 
carts pulled by oxen. The cart drivers conducted delicate little 
symphonies of pain to get on down the road, constantly poking, 
prodding, and lightly whipping the animals’ flanks while Su- 
kumar steered the jeep in a slalom course around them and told 
me that elephants were seen now and then right here, a few miles 
from the southern edge of Bangalore. Not long ago, they came 
right into the city’s outskirts by a college campus not far from 
where he teaches. 

From Bangalore, a series of rolling, forested hills lead along 
the Mysore Plateau to the heart of an elephant stronghold where 
the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala all meet in a 



India: Theppakadu 247 

swell of ridges and peaks. Throughout most of Asia, surviving 
elephants tend to be found in the sort of steep, rugged terrain 
that is the last to be converted for agriculture and human habi- 
tation. This area is a prime example. It includes the Eastern 
Ghats, the Western Ghats, and the Nilgiri Mountains, which run 
between the first two ranges and are basically a lateral extension 
of the Western Ghats. These highlands escaped heavy use by hu- 
mans for centuries and were then set aside as forest reserves or 
wildlife refuges before the momentum of modern change could 
overrun the more accessible portions. 

In the case of what is now Bandipur National Park and Tiger 
Reserve, the lands were first protected as the exclusive hunting 
estate of the maharajah of Mysore, just as many reserves in Eu- 
rope began as grounds where high-ranking noblemen could in- 
dulge their love of the chase. Local stories tell of one particular 
heir to the Mysore palace who was very fond of alcohol and 
would go riding out on his elephant to hunt tigers in Bandipur 
while royally drunk. Every time he aimed and fired, two or 
three sharpshooters by his shoulder would aim and fire at the 
same time. No one could be sure this maharajah ever hit what he 
aimed at. But then only on the rarest of occasions could anyone 
ever say that he missed. 

Not long ago, Bandipur, nearby Nagarahole National Park, 
Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, and Kerala South Wynad Sanc- 
tuary (a wynad is a wetland area) were linked with adjoining for- 
est reserves to create the 2150-square-mile Nilgiri Biosphere 
Reserve. As intact elephant habitats go these days, this repre- 
sents a substantial chunk. 

The first thing we had to do in the reserve was make a cour- 
tesy call at the headquarters for the Mudumalai Sanctuary, lo- 
cated in the village of Theppakadu. I did not much want to stop. 
A part of the wild world I had never seen was beckoning all 
around me — a green, southern Indian jungle filled with bright 
birds and strange calls — and I was desperate to touch it. I had 
just spent almost a month in artificial habitats dominated by in- 
creasingly identical consumer goods. This monolithic environ- 
ment — the mall-osphere — now stretched along the Pacific Rim 



24* The Fate of the Elephant 

from Japan to Hong Kong all the way to burgeoning Bangkok, 
where I made a stopover. 

I needed bush time to dear my head and recalibrate my senses. 

I had wasted almost a week fuming back and forth in Bangkok's 
near-gridlock traffic just to meet with officials at the Laotian em- 
bassy and fill out the stacks of forms they gave me. Visitors to 
Laos were generally confined to a zone around the capital, Vien- 
tiane. Since I wanted to look for elephants, I needed access to the 
countryside beyond, and I had been told that the embassy in 
Bangkok was a good place to pursue this. 1 had already been 
stonewalled by the Laotian embassy in Washington, D.C. No- 
body said no; the functionaries just never said anything. Every 
so often, 1 would call and be told that my repeated petitions were 
surely being passed along by somebody somewhere. 

If the Laotian bureaucrats gave my application any thought at 
all, it was most likely to wonder what it was I really wanted. I've 
run into this time and again with countries that lack experience^ 
with wildlife tourism. Having no serious interest in wild crea- 
tures, except perhaps as commodities, the officials cannot imag- 
ine that I do either. You want to spend all that time and money 
to go halfway around the globe so you can run through the jun- 
gle getting hot and filthy and leech-sucked just to watch ele- 
phants? Right. 1 had to be crazy, crooked, or a spy. 

Spy was probably their choice of the moment. I had specifi- 
cally requested permission to visit a part of southern Laos where 
people still used domestic elephants to plow fields and as the 
main means of transporting goods between villages. The next 
thing I heard about the area was that it was the focus of an active 
prodemocracy movement such as swept eastern Europe and 
briefly flourished in China. The communist government of 
Laos was in the process of bloodily suppressing it. I would take 
up my request to enter Laos on my next trip through Thailand. 

So now, heading toward Theppakadu, I pleaded with Suku- 
mar to just keep going straight into the heart of elephant country 
and bypass as many paperwork formalities as we could. I 
whined about my trials in central African government offices, 
the Laotian embassy, and a score of other Kafkaesque night- 



India: Theppakadu 249 

mares along the elephant trail. I grumbled that my tolerance for 
the tyranny of bureaucrats was worn down to the tearing point. 
I even admitted that I was a spoiled American journalist who did 
not think he should have to follow the same rules everybody else 
did. At least not until he’d gotten in a good hike first. Sukumar 
stopped in Theppakadu anyway. 

Across the street from the Mudumalai Sanctuary headquar- 
ters, a man was beating a dog. A disheveled old madwoman 
came wandering down the street and stopped to shriek at him. 
Bonnet macaques in an overhanging fig tree took up the cry and 
dropped down to the roof of a nearby building, where they 
formed a row of hooting, arm-waving spectators. The woman 
ran over and swept the dog up in her arms. Both she and the 
beaten animal turned with bared teeth toward the man, and he 
eased away, trying to appear as if he were still in charge. Only 
after the small drama had wound down did I notice that his 
stained khaki pants and sweaty shirt amounted to a uniform. 
This was our park official. 

I was more than prepared to loathe this fellow. I had a month’s 
worth of ivory trade madness and mall-dweller frustrations all 
ready to heap on the first son-of-a-mutant-mongoosc who tried 
to keep me from getting my feet back on God’s green earth. Yet 
when the official did indeed set about demanding more paper- 
work and letters of approval than we had, threatening to delay 
us interminably, living up to every foul expectation, I didn’t do 
a thing. I couldn’t. This was Sukumar’s study area. I was his 
guest. It wouldn’t have been fair for me to make the situation 
any more difficult. 

Sukumar placated the official well enough to keep us going in 
the field for a few days. Later, the man did manage to create 
trouble for us, but not an unmanageable dose of it. In the mean- 
time, we were out in the thick of the Nilgiri animal kingdom. 

Sukumar began by driving high into the Western Ghats to a 
temple site from which we looked across rippling hills and hun- 
dreds of square miles of uninterrupted forest. A series of light, 
premonsoon rains begin to sweep across the region in April or 
May, and they come first to these uppermost elevations, which 



250 Thb Fate or the Elbfhant 

wring the moisture from passing clouds. Where undisturbed, 
such sites give rise to true tropical rainforests of immense trees 
sprouting ferns and other epiphytes and draped with lianas. 
When the premonsoon starts in earnest, these areas are where the 
elephants will be, for the more open parts of the forests will have 
carpfcts of sprouting Themeda and Imperata grasses. 

The southwest monsoon season doesn’t really get under way 
until about the beginning of June. When it -does, the well- 
watered grasses shoot up as high as an elephant’s eye, becoming 
more coarse and fibrous and less nourishing. By then, the rains 
will also have begun falling downhill from the peaks and ridge- 
lines, and that’s where the giants will be, seeking the more re- 
cently sprouted grasses and forbs there. Eventually, this pattern 
takes them down to the lowest elevations, where a dry decidu- 
ous forest prevails, mixed with a protein-rich thomscrub in its 
more arid sections. This is also where the animals come into 
contact with agricultural and grazing lands outside the reserve.* 

The rains taper off during August, but are soon replaced by 
the northeast monsoon, beginning in September. Once it finally 
ends and foliage begins to dry up, usually toward late November 
or December, the elephants migrate toward riverine and wynad 
habitats, still seeking plant species with a high level of moisture 
and flowing nutrients. Over the long, rainless months to follow, 
such wet areas as remain cannot provide enough forage. The el- 
ephants shift from grazing to browsing — stripping bark from 
trees and munching on select shrubs. At times, they dig and tear 
up roots to eat as well. 

Overall, the downslope movement during the monsoons 
takes place from west to east. With the onset of premonsoon 
showers in April, the bands of elephants that are dispersed 
through the lower elevations of the forest gradually begin to 
gather into larger herds and migrate westward, returning to the 
uppermost elevations with new sprouting grasses to begin the 
cycle all over again. 

The average group size Sukumar recorded throughout the 
year was fairly small — just over eight. Yet it was not uncommon 
to observe herds of between ten and twenty. Large temporary 



India: THBrrAKADu 251 

groups formed around waterholes during the dry season, and 
herds of up to a hundred animals were recorded during the 
of migration from the lowlands back up toward the top of the 
Western Ghats. 

Together with the still relatively lightly developed country- 
side surrounding it, the Nilgiri Reserve supports close to 4000 
elephants, Sukumar figured. This amounts to one of the bright- 
est prospects anywhere for the species’s survival. Females here 
were first breeding between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, 
with a mean of seventeen-and-a-half. (The earliest age of preg- 
nancy recorded among domestic elephants was sixteen in Burma 
and 13.6 in India.) Calves were born at intervals of four to six 
years. Reproduction was not high, but it was adequate for re- 
placement and perhaps a fractional increase. In the portion of the 
countryside Sukumar chose for a study area, the population den- 
sity averaged about 1.3 elephants per square mile. 

An elephant population as robust as that found in the Nilgiri 
region should be an indication of an abundant and diverse fauna 
in general. It is. The Indian subcontinent contains wildlife com- 
munities nearly as rich as the better-known ones of Africa. India 
had cheetahs until the last century — Asiatic cheetahs. It still sup- 
ports lions and rhinos — Asiatic lions, the kind seen engraved on 
ancient stones in Greece and Persia, and Indian rhinoceroses. 
Since both have become rare and restricted in their range, the 
Nilgiri Reserve holds neither, but it can claim its share of leop- 
ards, striped hyenas, jackals, and mongooses, plus a gazellelike 
antelope known as the blackbuck. I think comparisons with Af- 
rica also came to mind for me because we were finding these an- 
imals or their sign among tall termite mounds, thorny acacias, 
and terminalia and combretum trees, all common to both Africa 
and the Indian subcontinent. 

As we drove and hiked through the countryside, we encoun- 
tered some of India’s members of the deer family as well. Sam- 
bar are related to Europe’s red deer and North America’s elk. 
Chital, also called spotted, or axis, deer, have a coat that always 
looks as though it were dappled with sunlight; it lets the animal 
Mend easily with die understory of the dry deciduous forest 



2$2 The Fatb of the Elephant 

with its relatively open canopy. Muntjac, or barking deer, are 
characterized by tusks, or tushes, formed from elongated canine 
teeth that are used in battles between members of this semisoli- 
tary species. And in the largely nocturnal chevrotain, or mouse 
deer, the males also carry tusks, though the entire body of the 
creature is barely a foot tall. 

Chital, muntjac, and, in the north, the para, or hog deer, are 
all secondary feeders at times. Much like duikers in African 
woodlands, they follow below monkey troops, which are very 
messy eaters and drop all kinds of fruits and leaves. The deer also 
follow elephants to glean leftovers in their wake. Elephants 
break a lot of trees. In fact, they probably keep certain tree and 
bamboo species in young stages of growth — maintain them in 
subclimax condition, as an ecologist would say. Sukumar thinks 
that the prevalence in the region of trees that revegetate readily 
from roots or branches suggests an adaptation to elephants over 
the ages. 

Along the crest of the Nilgiri Mountains lives the Nilgiri tatir, 
a shaggy mountaineer intermediate between wild sheep and 
wild goats. After circling downhill through an open teak forest 
to gain a closer view of a solitary bull elephant, we noticed a herd 
of another type of bovid half-hidden in the moist ravine bot- 
tom, where woody brush was interspersed with clumps of bam- 
boo. These were gaur. They stand seven or even eight feet at the 
shoulder with a sleek, blue-black coat and short, incurving 
horns like bison. Although sometimes called Indian bison, gaur 
are more closely related to India’s yaks and domestic cattle. The 
group we came upon was extremely wary, and it was a challenge 
to creep close enough to be able to observe these huge wild oxen 
through the underbrush without disturbing their behavior. 

India also contains wolves. They have a history of carrying 
off children here, I discovered, and were at it again in a northern 
state during the time of my visit. Let me rephrase that. There is 
a history of reports of wolves killing children and the wolves 
were reportedly at it again. Good documentation is still lacking. 
After centuries of persecution and habitat loss, their numbers are 
low, and the animals are rarely seen. We crossed no spoor of any. 



India: Theppakadu 253 

However, I saw my first dhole, or Indian wild dog, in the Nilgiri 
Reserve and was able to watch it for nearly a quarter of an hour. 

A sloth bear watched us for a few moments before racing 
away. We followed to see where it had been foraging. Sloth bears 
are neither slothful nor related to sloths but were classified that 
way for a while on the basis of worthless field reports about their 
behavior from colonial big-game hunters. During a sojourn in 
southern Nepal, 1 had heard stories of how sloth bears use their 
long, curved claws to attack people. Villagers said they. go for 
the face. As the feeding site we looked over showed, the 
formidable-looking claws are mainly used to tear open termite 
mounds. Aggression toward people by this animal is unusual. 

Besides, when you are in tiger country — and we were in some 
of the best — a sloth bear seems almost innocuous. This bear 
weighs a couple of hundred pounds, three hundred maximum, 
and is so specialized for sucking up termites that it has no 
front teeth. An Indian, or Bengal, tiger can weigh five hundred 
pounds, sometimes more. And a cat that size can eat pretty much 
whatever it wants. You simply have to hope none takes up the 
habit of adding people to its diet, as occasionally happens, while 
you are around. Given good protection in India through Project 
Tiger, a program emphasizing conservation at the ecosystem 
level, tigers have increased from a low of less than 2000 to more 
than 4000. In the Ganges Delta area, fishermen have lately taken 
to fashioning straw men to ride in the back of their little skiffs to 
take the brunt of any tiger attack, of which there have been doz- 
ens. The tiger is probably the one predator that poses a serious 
threat to Asian elephant calves and to any small juveniles sepa- 
rated from their families. 

Following a map sketched on a napkin, my wife, Karen Reeves, 
and I once trekked for days through prime tiger country in Ne- 
pal’s Chitwan National Park near the Indian border. We were 
more or less lost. Happily so. One night, we camped along a 
sandy riverbank by a flood plain thick with elephant grass fifteen 
to twenty feet tall. We worried about the rhinos stomping 
about. We worried about mugger crocodiles, and we worried 
about snakes. But not about tigers. In the morning, we found 



2$4 Tub Fats or thb Elephant 

fresh tiger prints within a foot or two of our joined sleep in g 
bags. Huge prints. We had been sniffed and spared while dream- 
ing. I am a coward about plenty of things, but / never worried 
about tigers before that, and I never have since. 


The animal I finally started to get nervous about was the one I 
had come to see. My impression had been that Asian elephants 
are not as aggressive as the African species. This view is wide- 
ly shared and based on several premises, including the Asian 
elephant’s smaller size and the fact that it is more of a forest- 
dwelling creature, forest dwellers being generally more secre- 
tive and retiring than their open-country counterparts. There is 
also the understanding that Asian elephants prove more tractable 
in captivity, whereas African elephants have seldom been tamed, 
at least in recent centuries. 

Yet I noticed that Sukumar was very cautious around ele- 
phants in the Nilgiri Reserve — much more cautious than his 
counterparts were in African reserves. Not that Sukumar was 
wildly impulsive to start with. But even taking his systematic, 
let’s-stick-to-the-data style into account, Sukumar still seemed 
exceedingly wary near these elephants. He told me that the head 
of wildlife at the Indian Forest Research Institute had visited here 
once and ignored warnings about approaching the elephants too 
closely. A bull ran him down and trampled him to death on the 
road. 1 was only mildly interested in this account until we 
stopped to watch a family feeding by the road and a five-year- 
old male suddenly whirled and charged our jeep. 

Typical, and not just of males, Sukumar let me know as we 
left. One group of four related females he had observed for years 
was usually ready to give chase at the slightest provocation. He 
named them the Torone sisters, after a particularly testy sorority 
of African elephants that Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton had 
studied in Tanzania’s Manyara National Park. 

As it turns out, elephants poach 150 to 200 people a year in 
India. Sukumar had documented 160 deaths from elephants in 



India: Thbpvakadu 

the biosphere reserve area alone over the preceding fifteen years. 
A couple of people had been nailed quite recently. One was a 
man killed while rounding up his buffalo in the reserve a week 
earlier. Just the other day, a guide leading a man within the re- 
serve had been cornered by a four- or five-year-old ma)<> and in- 
jured, and on the park’s edge, a woman had been chased by an 
elephant and wound up with a broken arm. It wasn’t dear yet 
whether she broke her arm when she fell or the elephant 
smashed it. No matter. I still wasn’t paying close attention to the 
implications, not even when I went for a late-aftemoon hike at 
the reserve’s edge, close to where the woman’s unlucky encoun- 
ter had occurred. 

I went with Varman and Arumugham, two students working 
as field assistants for Sukumar. We were in fairly dry habitat, 
where the forest tapers off into thornscrub, but it was flowering 
exuberantly in response to a spate of recent showers that her- 
alded the onset of the real monsoons. The high country was al- 
ready well soaked, and mists clung to the top of the Nilgiri peaks 
in the distance. Varman pointed out Acacia pennata, a shrubby le- 
gume whose long, pealike pods were favored by elephants. He 
called it Indian laburnum. I had little trouble recognizing an- 
other common shrub. When I brushed against some branches, 
double-hooked thorns stopped m«* in my tracks. Hello, Zizy- 
phus. This genus had cost me pants, shirts, and blood in the Af- 
rican thornscrub. Varman said the elephants here ate both the 
new branches and the berries and probably played a role in dis- 
tributing the seeds. 

Walking fast and easy in the fragrant air, we intersected scores 
of chital with their fawnlike coats of soft chandelier light. In one 
band were two female blackbucks that had wandered into the 
area but found no mates, populations of the species having 
grown scarce and widely scattered. As evening approached, we 
began to concentrate our attention on birds: a brown fish owl 
hunting by a pool along a stream; plaintive cuckoos — the name 
describes the call — in a berry-laden Zizyphus bush; hoopoes, 
bee-eaters, and rollers, all common in Africa as well; mynas, 
munias, and magpie-robins; and then, finally, peacocks. We fol- 



i$6 Thb Fate of the Elephant 

lowed them until we realized that we had four miles to go to 
reach the road, where we were to be picked up by a driver, and 
darkness was nearly upon us. Soon, we could only make out 
vague silhouettes of things right next to us. 

1 carried my flashlight in my hand toward the end of our 
march and turned it on to signal the driver. As soon as I did, a 
trumpet blast shot forth from the darkness in front of us. Di- 
rectly in front of us and awfully close. 1 snapped off the light. 
Footfalls sounded. We broke and ran in a short loop. As soon as 
we started to turn back toward the road, another trumpet cut us 
off. We veered at once and began running away. Footsteps fell 
close behind. I could feel them in the ground through my own 
feet, feel them inside my skull. 

“Go back and forth . . . through the trees,” shouted one of 
the researchers. Where were the trees? Here? Yes. I zigzagged for 
all I was worth. Giant footfalls still thudded behind. All I could 
do was race on, cutting sharply back and forth and hoping I 
didn’t smack into a tree trunk, until I became aware that the only 
thunderous sound left was from my own heart. 

We didn’t dare return toward the car. I wondered if we were 
still being stalked. How to tell? It was pitch black. With those 
layers of fat and connective tissue on the soles of their feet to help 
cushion their weight, elephants can be amazingly quiet when 
moving, if they want to be. I remembered being told of an ele- 
phant researcher surveying a remote part of Southeast Asia a few 
months earlier who described an elephant trying to hunt him 
down. He would get some distance away, out of sight, and stop 
to rest, and there would come the giant again, using its trunk 
like a bloodhound to track his scent along the jungle floor. A 
couple of Great White Hunters in Africa had described similar 
incidents in their journals. I hadn’t put much stock in them. But 
now, in the dark, I felt like elephant prey. My whole attitude to- 
ward elephants was zigzagging around through the flower- 
scented night. 

We made it to another section of the road and eventually 
flagged down a passing bus. Safe. Now we had to get to the man 
who had been waiting for us in the car. He would still be there. 



India: Theppakadu 257 

locked in behind the park gate for the night while we had the 
key. He would be stewing over our fate and possibly in trouble 
himself. Elephants in a foul mood sometimes squash cars. We 
reached a village and located someone who had a vehicle he 
could spare for our mission. Unfortunately, this someone was 
merrily slugging down rice liquor — rakshi — in a tavern, and im- 
pressing the urgency of the situation upon him took a while. Fi- 
nally, he consented to help us go find our friend. 

Our friend was there, still waiting. Though unsquashed, he 
was badly shaken mentally. The elephant had come upon the car 
in the gathering darkness without a sound. The first the driver 
knew of its presence was when it trumpeted at us, right next to 
the car window. I will never know what the elephant had in 
mind that night, but upon reflection, I have to credit the animal 
with giving us fair warning. If it had really been out to smoosh 
us, it could have merely waited where it was and let us bump 
right into it. 


i g iCjlCi lCSlCSlCSlCillii lCilCilCglPilCi 

I soon met two more young men studying elephants in Mudu- 
malai. Sukumar introduced us, but they were working indepen- 
dently of him, affiliated with the Bombay Natural History 
Society. The first was Ajay Desai, who was gathering detailed 
information on the social relationships and behavior of individ- 
ual elephants. The other was N. Sivaganesan. called Siva. He 
was collecting equally detailed data on the elephants' feeding 
habits through direct observation. 

Both projects were breaking new ground with their intensive, 
close-up approach to studying wild Asian elephants. The behav- 
ior and ecology of this species had been little enough studied 
from a distance. Ajay was discovering that beyond the mother- 
young social unit, allegiances between elephants did not appear 
to be strongly fixed; that is, a six-year-old female seen following 
a particular cow one day might be recorded walking behind an- 
other adult female in a separate group the next day. 

This was quite different from the more constant famib 



358 The Fate op thb Elephant 

groupings found among savanna elephants by the Douglas- 
Hamiltons, Cynthia Moss, and Joyce Poole. On the other hand, 
there were hints that African forest elephants might have a social 
structure similar to what Ajay was observing. Ajay noticed that 
even the mother-young bond wasn't constant, as calves spent a 
fair amount of time in the company of sisters and aunts. But that 
seems in keeping with observations of African elephants, whose 
babies sometimes spend more time around ait: older female — a 
grandmother or auntie type — than their own mother for long 
periods. Unlike African cows, Asian females rarely secrete from 
their temporal glands when excited. 

Ajay agreed with Sukumar’s fmdings of small group size, av- 
eraging between six and eight — another characteristic the forest- 
dwelling Nilgiri elephants seemed to share with African forest 
elephants. The larger Nilgiri groups that formed appeared to in- 
volve related families — bond groups and even larger clans — but 
Ajay wanted more observations to be sure. He told me that the 
interactions he saw during get-togethers around waterholes or 
in the bush were essentially the same as those of African ele- 
phants. Matriarchs greeted one another with clasped trunks and 
generally avoided overt conflict, while young males couldn't 
wait to begin jousting and sparring. 

Dr. A. J. T. Johnsingh, who advised Ajay and Siva, insisted 
that they spend every day for an entire year working with do- 
mestic elephants before undertaking field work in the Nilgiri 
Reserve. The idea was for them to become intimately familiar 
with the animals, with each nuance of expression and the mean- 
ing of each sound. The better they were able to interpret an el- 
ephant’s intentions, the -higher their chances of staying alive in 
the bush. 

Siva admits that he was frightened half to death when he be- 
gan working with elephants in the wild. He stayed that way for 
the better part of a year, terrified day in and day out by what he 
was doing. Now, more than four years later, he had still only 
met one elephant, a female, that tolerated him at close range. 
Only one — and he may owe her his life. Siva was watching her 
group when a ten-year-old male attacked him. He decided that 



India: Thbpfakadu 259 

his only possibility for escape was to run in among the females 
and hope the male would hesitate to charge among them. The 
ploy worked, or Siva wouldn’t have been here now in mid- 
mommg, directing me past Kydia and Anogeissus trees toward a 
group of elephants. The family consisted of two adult females, 
a five-year-old female, and a two-year-old whose sex wasn’t yet 
obvious, and they had an adult musth male in attendance. 

The bull’s presence put both us and the female elephants on 
edge. They moved along quickly through an understory of tall, 
dense brush dominated by an orange-blossomed shrub called 
Lantana. We followed downwind. Siva had found that as tem- 
peratures grow warmer during the day, the elephants are more 
likely to use shadier, moister areas. He guessed this group was 
on its way downhill toward a ravine, or vayal. Thick, ropy fig 
vines coiled around some of the larger trees. The shrubs were 
strung with Ipomoea, a flowering vine I had seen brightening 
wide sections of Tsavo National Park in Kenya after the rains. 
Exactly how dense some of the thickets were was hard to ap- 
preciate until the whole mass of elephants would suddenly dis- 
appear from view while still close enough that the sound of their 
chewing filled the air. 

So far, Siva had accumulated 720 hours of direct feeding ob- 
servations. Between poor visibility and the animals’ aggressive- 
ness, it had taken him several years. He gathered a lot of his data 
the same way other primates do — by racing from tree to tree and 
climbing up into the branches to peer around. He needed to be 
high up in order to see over intervening vegetation and make out 
which plants the giants were actually selecting, and a stout tree 
was generally the safest place to be for someone trying to stay as 
close as possible to elephants without disturbing them. In all, his 
was one of the most unusual and adrenaline-rich research proj- 
ects I had come across. 

Siva took another precaution in his work that was every bit as 
valuable as the year he invested with captive elephants. He al- 
ways brought along at least one extra pair of eyes and ears in the 
form of a local tracker and guide. Not only did he need help 
keeping tabs on various members of the group he was follow- 



26o The Fate of the Elephant 

ing, he had learned through harsh experience that he needed 
someone to look out for other elephants that might suddenly ap- 
pear behind him. 

On the day we followed the family being visited by the musth 
male, two trackers led the way: Chenna, a villager from Thep- 
pakadu, and Bomman, a member of the Kuruba tribe, an indig- 
enous group still living within the reserve. 

Like the Sholagas, another group native to ,the Nilgiri area, 
the Kurubas are thought to represent an aboriginal line present 
in southern India before even the Dravidians arrived. Bomman 
was dark-skinned but, unlike the Dravidians, had a short, stocky 
build with broad feet and broad features, especially the nose. I 
thought he bore a marked resemblance to Australian aborigines. 
Later, I learned that these early inhabitants of southern India are 
referred to by some authorities as proto-Australoid. 

Before I met Bomman or any of the area’s other indigenous 
people, I had been walking through a chital-grazed patch of for- 
est trailing elephant sign when I came upon a low log hut with a 
roof of packed earth and sod. Inside were stones. Simple, 
smooth stones. They were offerings to Bummi, I learned, a god- 
dess venerated by the Kurubas and represented only by uncarved 
naturalistic objects in a continuation of animistic practices that 
predate Hinduism. 

The Kurubas subsist by hunting some game and fish and gath- 
ering other forest produce, from green shoots to fruits and nuts. 
If they need to get outside materials or raise a bit of cash, they 
caxvusua&y gather extra w\Vd honey ot medicinal herhs to ttade 
or sell. In the past, Indian authorities sometimes tried to relocate 
such groups from reserves and encourage them to take up agri- 
culture. Sometimes they were allowed to stay but forbidden to 
hunt or gather in the protected zone, which merely turned them 
into full-time poachers. Nowadays, the government is more in- 
clined to let indigenous tribes remain in their homelands with 
only a few restrictions on what sort of animals they can hunt. 
The situation is still confusing, though, because the regulations 
imposed on indigenous peoples vary from one Indian state to an- 
other even within the reserve. Some of the Kurubas flee into the 
forest when they encounter any visitor from the outside. 



India: Theppakadu 26.1 


Chenna kept an eye on the rear while Bomman kept vigil to 
one side. His vantage point was a high tree limb that he had 
climbed, as usual, with a machete in one hand. Siva and I were 
together in another tree. Birds chanted in the bush. Once, we 
heard crashing behind us, but it turned out to be a herd of gaur. 
Butterflies in great flocks danced between the thickets like waft- 
ing petals or dispersing seeds. Hot, thick air rich with perfumes 
and colors enwrapped us; high overhead a black eagle circled, its 
silhouette stroboscoping through the leaves of the canopy. 

Our elephants were the grey splotches visible now and then 
behind screens of orange lantana blossoms. “Lantana is an exotic 
shrub, from South America, I think,” Siva whispered as we 
rested on adjoining limbs, looking down toward the elephants. 
“It takes over on disturbed ground. People grazing cattle and 
buffalo have spread it through the reserve. Beautiful, the flow- 
ers. But this plant is poor forage for animals. The elephants may 
tear it, but they are not eating it. They are trying to get under- 
neath to the grasses.” 

Bomman bounded down from his tree to take up a position in 
one closer yet to the elephants. He looked back toward us and 
waved his machete for us to join him. We did, and waited a while 
in utter silence. Then Siva and Bomman began whispering. I 
couldn’t begin to follow, but some of the words Bomman used 
sounded very odd. Was this the Kuruba tongue, 1 asked? No. 
Bomman had memorized the Latin names for the vegetation, 
Siva said. “The grass there looks like Setaria intermedia," he con- 
tinued. “That one. See it? Very tasty, because it is just sprouting 
now with the rains, so it has a good concentration of nutrients. ” 

Biologists say elephants process their food at only about 50 
percent efficiency. It is one of the things that makes them partic- 
ularly good seed dispersers. They not only spread them around 
but enhance their chances of germination by passing them 
through with only minor processing and dropping them in fer- 
tilizer that makes a good, rich mulch without being too concen- 
trated in nitrogenous chemicals. Siva found that 80 percent of 
seeds sprouting in elephant dung were viable, whereas only 40 
percent of seeds sprouting apart from dung survived. Wild 
boars, mongooses, hornbills, and jungle fowl, the ancestors of 



*6* The Fate of the Elephant 


all domestic chickens, scavenge seeds from elephant manure, be- 
coming secondary dispersers. Interesting to think that the 
chicken on tables around the world was originally shaped in part 
by the presence of elephants in Asia’s forests. 

“Since elephants eat several hundred pounds of forage daily, 
people think these animals just bash along eating everything as 
they go. But they don’t, and it is because their system is unable 
to digest rough forage that efficiently,’’ Siva noted. He swept an 
arm toward the west and said, “Look. There is the whole high 
country full of grass taller than your head and not a single ele- 
phant in it. To keep in good condition, they must constantly seek 
out the highest quality foods. For creatures so huge, they are ac- 
tually fairly picky eaters. They have to be. This has important 
implications for their range and movements. You can’t stick 
them into inferior habitat and say, well, they will just have to 
spend more time looking for food and less time resting. They are 
already eating sixteen to twenty hours a day in good habitat. 
Now, . . . Uh-oh.” 

For some time, the sounds of contented foraging — blowing, 
rumbling, branches snapping, molars grinding — had issued 
from the elephant group in a steady flow, even when we couldn’t 
see what they were actually doing. They had slowed their pace 
quite a bit. We were nearing die midday resting period during 
which elephants often stand about in a shady spot and feed list- 
lessly if at all. Abruptly, a louder rumble had cut off the other 
sounds. A high-pitched squeaking followed. “Alarm call,” Siva 
whispered, and all at once, the elephants were coming our way. 

The wind must have shifted. Chenna materialized on a lower 
limb of the tree, gesturing frantically. Siva and Bomman started 
discussing something in equally great haste. Once again, 1 was 
in a strange place listening to people I didn’t really know talking 
in a tongue I couldn’t fathom about what to do about something 
that could kill us and was drawing ever closer. When I queried 
Chenna and Bomman earlier, they had agreed that, yes, the el- 
ephants here would track people down through the bush by 
scent, like a hunting dog. 

We were too low in the tree, and I was not sure it was thick 



India: Thbppakadu 263 


enough to withstand the bull if he decided to try and shake us 
out. Luckily, the elephants solved everything by stopping short, 
moving off at an angle, and half-vanishing again in a different 
thicket. The only problem was that Siva would now have to wait 
a quarter of an hour or so before the elephants were relaxed 
enough to provide normal, rather than disturbed, feeding data. 
All things considered, not a bad problem. I climbed slighdy 
higher and caught a nap in the crotch of a limb. When I awak- 
ened, the elephants were just emerging from the shrubs into an 
open, parklike stand of teak and themeda grass, another favorite 
food. This was our best view of the elephants yet. 

“Ho!” exclaimed Chenna under his breath. At the heels of 
one female was a calf barely a month old. This littlest elephant 
explained the extra caution of the group earlier after smelling us. 
The reason they didn’t run away altogether was that the animals 
were somewhat used to human scent. 

Many Indian reserves differ from Western exclusionary mod- 
els. In addition to the tribal people permitted to live inside the 
Nilgiri Reserve, nearby villagers were allowed to gather fire- 
wood and graze livestock on a limited basis within the periphery 
of the protected area. Some selective commercial logging of 
teak was also allowed. To integrate the biosphere reserve with 
existing land-use practices and local economies was the strategy. 
To some extent, it was an effective one. However, the number 
of people using the periphery far exceeded the guidelines; vil- 
lagers penetrated farther into more pristine core areas than they 
were supposed to; and quite a few people were simply squatting 
in the reserve. If the wild creatures were to flee every time they 
smelled people nearby, they would soon be exhausted. 

The elephants we were observing continued across the open 
understory. We jumped down from the tree and followed at a 
distance. The group came to a spot where we had crouched ear- 
lier while first locating the animals. Trunks probed the grasses 
and inhaled our spoor, possibly testing it for freshness. Then 
those trunks reared upward and waved toward us like so many 
tentacles. 1 thought of Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So" story about 
how the elephant got its trunk: A nose of the everyday short- 



Tub Fate or the Elephant 

snout kind was grabbed and stretched by a crocodile on the 
banks of the great, green, greasy Limpopo River. My thoughts 
swirled back to Tsavo, where an observer wrote of seeing a bull 
elephant having trouble withdrawing its trunk from Mzima 
Springs after drinking. A great heave finally got the trunk out — 
with a good-size crocodile attached to the end. The bull wound 
up and swung the reptile twenty-five feet through the air. 

“Elephants can smell fear. You must not show fear,” Chenna 
was whispering. “You must not think fear either.” No fear. No 
fear. 

Following the matriarch’s lead, the giants all turned in our di- 
rection. No fear. My attention was riveted on a life form at my 
feet. It was one of the long, twiglike insects known as walking 
sticks. The fore and aft legs were green, the middle pair brown 
as dead branches. And the digestive system was spilling out of 
its split abdomen. Someone’s heedless shoe had crushed the bug 
in the grasses, and it was dragging itself along toward oblivion, 
noticed only by me and the flies already feeding on its guts? 
Crashing noises brought my head up. The giants had turned 
again, this time in the direction they had come from, and they 
silently melted back into the jungle thickets. 

Chenna said the lead female never would have rushed us for 
any distance. Why? Out of fear of becoming separated from her 
baby. But you never knew whether one of the lower-ranking fe- 
males might try her luck. And a musth male — you never knew 
what he was going to do next because he didn’t know either. 

Chenna happened to be a genuine authority in the sphere of 
elephants, fear, and charges. “If an elephant comes running at 
you, you just stay and watch, and if it slows down its speed just 
a little, just very slightly as it charges, you can continue to stand 
still, and it will come to a stop,” he told me. Siva vouched for 
the fact that Chenna was willing to stand his ground in the face 
of an onrushing giant. Elephants had come as close as twenty 
feet before putting on the brakes, and Chenna never faltered. He 
was even known to chase elephants. Chenna said he was twenty- 
two years old when he learned the trick of not showing or think- 
ing fear. As he was twenty-nine when we met, I suppose there 



India: Theppakadu 265 


is something to it. Possibly, the secret has to do with becoming 
motionless, for Chenna insisted that it was as important to avoid 
moving as to avoid feeling or revealing fear. 

Suppose the elephant is twenty feet away and still shows no 
sign of stopping? “If the elephant comes on at full speed, no 
slowing — that is the sign, no slowing — you had better fly. 
Throw stones. Yell and throw and run to a new place. And then 
stop moving. It really works very well,” Chenna assured me. I 
believed that it worked. For Chenna. He was lithe and extremely 
quick, as well as confident enough to avoid making any panicky 
moves. If he had to, he could probably be zagging before the av- 
erage giant was done zigging. I recalled Iain Douglas-Hamilton’s 
tales of standing off some elephant charges by swinging a survey 
tripod over his head, and I had grown somewhat used to low- 
level bluff charges by African elephants. But I had no urge to test 
myself Chenna-style around these Asian ones. 

The reason I am paying so much attention to rip-snorting el- 
ephant chase sagas is that I believe the surprisingly aggressive be- 
havior of the giants here reveals a great deal about the forces 
currently affecting them and their ultimate chances for survival. 
The strongest force is the relentless expansion of the human 
population around the reserve. Acre by acre, the buffer zones 
of forest once lightly used by people are being converted into 
intensively used pasture and farmland to feed the exploding 
populace. More and more, the Nilgiri elephants’ use of low el- 
evations brings them into contact with agricultural areas, and it 
does so at exactly the wrong time for the local farmers. 

Farmers usually plant some sorghum, maize, and other crops 
during the period of light, premonsoon rains that begins in 
April and May. More extensive plantings, mainly of ragi, or fin- 
ger millet, are made from late summer onward in anticipation of 
the true monsoons. Elephants are down frequenting the thorn- 
scrub soon afterward, having abandoned the tall, rank grass of 
the highlands in search of more palatable fare. In keeping with 
their strategy of exploiting the most nutritious, high-energy 
food resource available in any given season, they could hardly do 
better than to move on into the nearest fields to get at the grow- 



366 Tub Fate of the Elephant 

ing grains in monsoon time. And it is never that far a march 
from die mountains to the fields in any season for an elephant 
that remembers dining on the sort of plants that flourish year- 
round near villages: banana, jackfruit, mango, coconut, and 
sugar cane. 

Elephant crop raids nearly always take place at night. Females 
and other family members tend to linger by the forest edge when 
they come into fields and are fairly easily spooked off by ap- 
proaching people. Mothers with young babies almost never raid 
by themselves. Bulls are more likely than cows to stomp right 
out into the open and remain there despite disturbances, though 
the younger bulls often wait until they can join with other males 
before venturing into the fields. Sukumar saw one old, experi- 
enced male arrive at 6:oo p.m. and gorge itself steadily until 6:oo 
a.m., by which time it had removed between 440 and 660 
pounds of millet. 

Twice the weight of females when fully grown, Asian males 
consume twice as much during a typical raid. They also raid 
much more often and are much more dangerous to deal with. Of 
the 160 deaths from elephants that" Sukumar recorded for the 
Nilgiri area, 45 percent were on cultivated land. All but one of 
them were caused by bulls. The other deaths occurred within the 
reserve but were in large part associated with settlements located 
within the reserve. About 80 percent of those were caused by 
males too. 

A particularly notorious bull that Sukumar monitored was in 
crop fields at least 120 nights, a third of the year. In the Nilgiri 
area, the average adult male raided fields on 49 nights of the year 
and caused U.S. $600 worth of damage to crops, while the av- 
erage family member raided on 8 nights and did more like $30 
. of damage — still a substantial amount in a land where the annual 
per-capita income is under $200. This is why farmers average 
something like 100 nights a year in the fields themselves. Some, 
especially owners of the newest plots to have been hacked out of 
the forest along the reserve’s edge, spend more than 150 nights 
among their crops, trying to ward off raids. 

Sambar, chital, and troops of langur monkeys all filch a share 
of human produce and must be guarded against. The two deer 



India: Thbppakadu 267 


species usually arrive for the early sprouts. Elephants are more 
likely to wait until a grain held is tall and golden and almost 
ready to cut, then come in and break farmers’ hearts. “One year, 
they took three-quarters of my crop just days before the har- 
vest,” I heard from Boran Gowda, the owner of several plots. 
“Last year, I spent six months in the fields at night. When there 
were maybe two days left until harvesting, elephants came. 
They didn’t take everything from me, but they took too much. 
They took the whole field next to mine.” 

It was getting close to ripening time when I was there. Boran ’s 
fields of ragi were once again full of promise. They lay at the 
edge of a village called Masinagudi, meaning temple ( gudi ) of 
Masina, a local fertility goddess. Back in April, an elderly man 
from Masinagudi — too old to have reflexes like Chenna’s — had 
been resting against a tree in the reserve to keep an eye on his 
grazing cattle when he was attacked and killed by a male ele- 
phant about ten years old. Now the scene of encounters had 
moved to the fields. There had been interactions between people 
and elephants almost every night. 

Several took place the first night we visited, as a young bull 
rummaged through fields close to Boran s. Sukumar guessed the 
male’s age at five to seven. He was not big, but big enough to 
smash through live fences of thombush and a euphorbia with 
toxic sap planted along the boundaries of fields to keep cattle 
out. Big enough to mash a grass sleeping hut and intimidate 
those on guard, then go on to feast upon millet turning from 
green to gold. 

We heard the commotion, but I never caught sight of the cul- 
prit. Operating alone, he was fast and furtive. When morning 
arrived, we inspected the damage, with Sukumar carefully mea- 
suring out the dimensions of trampling and grazing in the millet 
patch. We spent the day observing wild elephants within the re- 
serve, briefly following a group of seventeen, then returned to 
Masinagudi by late afternoon. Evening came and gave way to 
lavender twilight, and we rejoined the farmers out in the fields. 
For some of them, the busiest part of the twenty-four-hour pe- 
riod was just beginning. 

The scene was of preparation for battle, and it could have been 



*68 Thb Fatb op thb Elephant 

from any century in the past several thousand years. Across the 
grain-patterned landscape, men squatted over small fires beside 
grass huts and piles of throwing stones they had gathered. Oth- 
ers moved between outposts carrying torches. Stout trees had 
been left standing here and there amid the plots. Almost every 
one had a ladder along its trunk leading up to a watch hut or plat- 
form in the branches. Boys as young as twelvejoined the defense 
force, and they were usually stationed in the trees, straining to 
see through the gloaming. From the trees, from the ground 
huts, from campfires glowing in the distance, the farmers sent a 
growing chorus of hoots and clangs out against the night. 

Boran had cobbled together a wind-driven mill of tin cans 
with pebbles inside. Each gust sent the contraption ratcheting 
and clattering with renewed strength. Other men carried rattles. 
A few had whistles. The night before, an unearthly hybrid of a 
moan and a squeal had put the hair on my neck on alert. While 
wandering through the moonlit fields in search of the maraud*- 
ing bull, we had come upon a man squatting next to an inverted 
tin can. The shaft of a peacock feather hung from its center like 
a bell clapper. He showed me how to moisten my fingers and 
pull them down the length of the feather vane, which had a 
rough feel. The friction generated the weird moan-squeal noise, 
and the can amplified it to a startling volume. 

Whatever works. Sometimes, nothing does. I was told that 
experienced crop-raiding bulls would ignore thrown firecrack- 
ers and even gunshots aimed close to them. “I once put five 
rounds over an elephant’s head from the verandah as he was raid- 
ing our area. This gentleman did not even have the courtesy to 
stop chewing,” sniffed Siasp Kothavala, the owner of a small 
plantation in Masinagudi. 

This night, the moon would rise late and be close to full. We 
waited by Boran’s little fire. Periodically, an alarm arose in some 
quarter and surged across the fields, raising cries on all sides, 
then gradually ebbed as it was proved false. As the hours wore 
on and still no elephants came, I drifted off to sleep by the coals. 
It was a fitful sleep, roiled by the wind-powered rattle close at 
hand, twisted by sporadic cries and whistles from afar. Before 



India: Thbpfakadv 269 

long, I slipped into truly evil dreams, one bloody phantasma- 
goria soaking into another. At some point, I roused myself long 
enough to think: God help me, I must have had other lives to put 
details in my head like these; what bitter proof of reincarnation. 
Then I drifted off again. 

Sometime after midnight, I was shaken out of my horrific 
drowse and led stumbling through pools of moonlight toward a 
great roaming boulder of darkness. At first, we were expecting 
the smaller bull that had come the night before. Then we were 
expecting a teenage bull that had been reported while I was 
sleeping. But this one was enormous and trumpeting like doom. 
Once enough men had gathered with torches and flashlights, 
screaming and hurling stones, he finally gave way. But he re- 
turned from the forest at a different point fifteen minutes later, 
was driven off again, returned. . . . 

Back at his hut Boran rubbed his eyes and said, “1 believe the 
elephant is a god. If I lose my crops, I never blame the elephant. 
I blame myself. I wonder what I have done wrong. I pray to Ga- 
nesh not to destroy my food.” 


Ganesh, also revered as Ganesa and Ganapati, is Lord of the folk. 
Remover of obstacles, God of wisdom and success. He is the son 
of Siva, mightiest of all the Hindu deities, and his consort, Par- 
vati. In one version of Ganesh’s origin, Parvati formed him from 
rubbings off her own body, then stationed him by the door to 
her chambers to stand guard while she took a bath. Returning 
from his cosmic errands, Siva flew into a rage when he found a 
handsome stranger by his wife’s door. (Some versions say Ga- 
nesh was conceived and grew up in the normal manner, but Siva 
had been away so long that he failed to recognize his own son in 
Parvati’s room.) The upshot was that Ganesh got his head cut 
off. Emerging to see what the ruckus was about, Parvati let Siva 
know that he had just murdered her offspring. A chastised and 
repentant Siva at once dispatched his minions to cut off the head 
of the first living thing they came upon so they could replace Ga- 



ijpn TMSFATBOFTHBEiBBBANp 

A 

neshV with it. That fust living thing happened to be an elephant. 
Hence, another name for this god: Gajamukha, the elephant- 
faced. 

Though a subsidiary deity in terms of rank and power, Ga- 
nesh the facilitator, the intermediary, chief among Siva’s at- 
tendants, is generally the one first called upon whenever a 
supplicant arrives at a holy site to address other gods. He is also 
worshipped in his own right, and worshipped often, because as 
lord of the folk, Ganesh is the one who takes tne time to sym- 
pathize with householders’ everyday needs and worries. When 
bare feet first touch village streets in the predawn light, when 
hands move through the mist and dust bearing lighted candles 
and offerings, when the cupped flame and fruits and rice grains 
and vermilion powders are brought before images of the holy, 
the first word on the lips of millions as they begin their morning 
prayers is Ganesh. 

I saw Ganesh temples old and new on the way to the Nilgiri 
Reserve, Ganesh shrines among the houses in villages, and Ga-* 
nesh icons at the entry ways to homes. He is carved with a real- 
istic trunked elephant’s head — a tusked male head, with one of 
the tusks usually depicted as broken. The heavy head rests upon 
a four-armed body, which typically has a smooth potbelly and 
short, bandy legs. Beneath the legs is the image of another crea- 
ture. Each major Hindu deity is associated with one — a living 
vehicle, an animal that he or she rides through time and space. 
Siva’s vehicle is a bull, Vishnu’s a bird, and so on. Ganesh rides 
upon a rat, which is interesting in light of the Western myth that 
elephants are terrified of small rodents. This belief is an old one. 
Pliny records that “They hate the mouse worst of living things, 
and if they see one merely touch the fodder in their stall they re- 
fuse it with disgust.” One trainer at an American zoo told me 
that captive elephants in earlier times may indeed have been ter- 
rified of small rodents, but because rats came to gnaw at their 
shackled legs. However, another trainer said he had seen ele- 
phants squash mice and roll their little bodies underfoot until the 
skin came off. And Dave Blasko, of Marine World-Africa, 
U.S.A. in Vallejo, California, knew of a captive elephant that 



India: Thbppakadu 2?i 

regularly set aside a small portion of its ration of grain for a res- 
ident mouse, perhaps a case of a tame animal keeping a pet of 
its own. 

The four hands of the elephant god variously hold a cattle 
goad, a noose or halter, a rice pot, a scepter, or boons for wor- 
shippers. More likely than not, one of the hands holds Ganesh’s 
broken tusk. In another of his roles, that of the sacred scribe, 
Ganesh first put the epic Mahabharata into written form, fu- 
riously scribbling in Sanskrit on papyrus leaves as the sage Vy- 
asa dictated. Partway through, Ganesh's writing stick broke. 
Without hesitation, he snapped off his own tusk to use in its 
place and carried on. He stands as the patron of letters and learn- 
ing, and I left offerings to the Elephant-headed One many times, 
asking him to help me gain knowledge and pass it on to others. 
This was also a way for me to express the respect I felt for the 
power and intelligence of the elephants themselves. 

Yes, some elephants were out there at the same time stomping 
around on fields, huts, and people. Sukumar described places 
where the giants went after the grain even after it was harvested, 
breaking into storage houses. They also had a knack for smash- 
ing illegal stills in the forest, where the grain was being fer- 
mented into liquor, wallowing and swallowing in piles of mash. 
In one village, a bull found a whole barrel of palm toddy, sucked 
it down, and proceeded to act about like you would expect a 
megaton drunk to act. He tore up and smashed and trampled the 
village and quite possibly enjoyed the hell out of himself. But, 
as Boran knew, that’s the sort of things gods do. Whether they 
have elephant heads or some other form, they will test you, tak- 
ing away the very things you most cherish to check on your 
soul. Who can say why? 

The special reverence Hindus feel toward elephants is rein- 
forced at a broader level by the Hindu reverence for all life, a 
concept known as ahimsa. You could also describe ahimsa as non- 
violence, the avoidance of harm, or simply as compassion. It 
springs from a conviction that even the smallest and most com- 
mon of creatures with no direct link to thfe Hindu pantheon are 
nonetheless manifestations of the divine. 



272 The Fate of the Elephant 


IS151SISISIS15151S15151SIST 

Given that the object is not to destroy these animals, farmers 
quickly run short of ways to contend with crop-raiding giants, 
beyond attacking bravely with stones and torches. Trenches 
rather like those used to block tank movements have been tried 
out as barriers in a few places. With their columnar legs, ele- 
phants lack the flexibility to contend with abrupt drop-offs. But 
they make up for physical shortcomings with mental abilities. 
Local Nilgiri tales describe elephants using logs to make bridges. 
One farmer swore to me that he had seen an adult elephant climb 
down into a trench and let the smaller ones cross on its back. I 
can’t vouch for the accounts of either technique being genuine, 
though zoo elephants are known to have made log bridges over 
lesser barriers, and the Roman author Aelian wrote of an ele- 
phant going down into a trench so that others could use its back 
as a bridge. In any case, many Nilgiri elephants quickly learned 
to simply kick down the earthen embankments with their feet to 
create crossings. An equally serious shortcoming of trenches is 
the sheer amount of labor required to dig them and then main- 
tain the steep sides against monsoon thunderbursts and general 
erosion leading to slumping. 

Asian elephants can learn to overcome electric fences as well, 
using the thickly padded, insulating soles of the feet to depress 
the wires. Bulls discover that their tusks are also poor conduc- 
tors and use them the same way. And some elephants apparently 
learn to push trees down across the fences. Observers claim to 
have seen the animals drag in trees or branches from some dis- 
tance away to throw them across fences — making bridges again. 
I had already heard about each of those techniques in Africa, 
along with stories of mothers lifting young babies completely 
over a fence with their trunks. 

Not every elephant improvises ways around electric fences, 
though, and those that do may still receive shocks often enough 
through slips and miscalculations to result in negative condition- 
ing. Consequently, this sort of barrier has proved effective in a 
variety of situations and holds real promise. The main drawback 



India: Theppakadu 273 


at the moment is that few individual farmers in developing na- 
tions can afford such fencing, much less the generators or solar 
panels necessary to power them in remote areas. Agricultural 
cooperatives can sometimes come up with the funds but seem to 
run into difficulties getting people to maintain long stretches of 
fencing. Without periodic wire-mending and clearing of vege- 
tation that can grow up to short-circuit fencelines, the whole 
structure is little better than string. The most successful opera- 
tors of electric fencing in elephant country have generally been 
well-to-do individual farmers and highly organized estates and 
plantations. 

The subject of electric fences is a reminder that the elephant’s 
aura of the divine is not enough to protect it from some Indians. 
There are farmers who will run a strand of wire along the border 
of their fields and hook it up directly to a 230-volt electric trans- 
mission line. An elephant touching this illegal barrier will be 
instantly stunned or killed (and the same holds for any unsus- 
pecting person happening upon it). This is the most common 
way of dealing with giant marauders. One farmer fried an ele- 
phant by putting one end of a wire into a nice, ripe bunch of ba- 
nanas and throwing the other end over a high-tension power 
line. A few wealthy farmers and plantation owners have been 
known to hire someone to surreptitiously shoot problem ele- 
phants. 

The number of elephant deaths caused by people taking ex- 
treme measures to defend their fields has been relatively minor 
in the Nilgiri ecosystem. But one more factor remains to be ac- 
counted for in elephant-human relationships here, and that fac- 
tor is ivory poaching. Rampant ivory poaching. It has not 
devastated the population for one simple reason: Asian elephant 
females lack tusks; therefore, the breeding segment of the pop- 
ulation has been left more or less intact. Sukumar feels that the 
Nilgiri population has held its own numerically and possibly 
even increased by 1 percent to 2 percent a year. But the killing of 
males has been so pervasive that it threatens the genetic and be- 
havioral make-up of . the species over the long term, together 
with its very survival. 



274 Thb Fate op the Elephant 

Beginning in the late 1970s, poachers in southern India killed 
a minimum of 90 to 150 bulls each year, Sukumar figures. That 
toll may not seem too dramatic, considering that the region 
holds 5000 to 7000 elephants, counting the Nilgiri animals. Over 
die years, however, it added up to the removal of nearly all the 
big tuskers in many areas. In 1987, when Sukumar recorded the 
age and sex of 1 188 elephants in the Nilgiri area, he found only 
46 males older than fifteen. And the pace of killing had picked 
up since then. Ajay and Siva thought that about 500 elephants, 
or 12.5 percent of the Nilgiri population, had been poached 
within recent years. 

In preparing to publish a book based upon his studies (his ex- 
cellent The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management came out 
later in 1989), Sukumar had made it his business to collect up- 
dated census estimates from throughout the species’s range. He 
could list seven elephant populations large enough to possibly 
avoid slipping away over the long run through increasing iso- 
lation combined with genetic drift and inbreeding. One inhabits 
the state of Sabah in Borneo. One is in the Irrawady-Chindwin 
valleys and northern hill ranges of Burma. Another dwells in 
southeastern Sri Lanka. Between political instability and mas- 
sive deforestation, none of these three can be considered secure. 
The Sabah population was becoming thoroughly fragmented by 
the time the book came out, and Sri Lanka’s model system of 
connected reserves was a casualty of war, with dead rangers, 
poisoned waterholes, and rebel groups using the wildlands as 
bases of operations. 

The other four major elephant populations are in India. Three 
of them are in the north of the nation and also subject to political 
instability along with accelerating habitat transformation. The 
last population consists of the inhabitants of the Nilgiri area. 
They, too, are steadily growing more confined by conversion of 
wildlands. Traditional migration corridors between the Eastern 
and Western Ghats are being whittled down to a scattered se- 
quence of microhabitats — swales and thickets, stringers and 
brushy bottoms — that are just barely usable anymore. Forests 
linking the ecosystem to the Lake Periyar area and other prime 
elephant range to the south are alreadv in the next staee — trans- 



India: Thbfpakadu 175 

formed into a belt of farmland and villages wide enough that it 
now acts as an all but impermeable barrier. 

Within the Nilgiri Reserve itself, heavy grazing and firewood 
gathering remove a certain amount of forage from the elephants. 
Of greater concern are the fires that repeatedly sweep through 
the forest during the dry season every year. They are set by herd- 
ers to maintain grassy pasture, by gatherers of honey and herbs 
to make travel easier and dangerous animals more visible, and by 
poachers to drive game and make their prey more visible. In 
sum, almost everyone using the reserve except tourists is likely 
to be tossing out matches during the dry months. Lightning-set 
wildfires grow fine grasslands and are an important agent of nat- 
ural habitat diversity within the monsoon forest. But fires set 
too frequently by people discourage regeneration of the very 
trees that build the forest. 

Frequent fires also suppress the growth of bamboo. The Nil- 
giri area harbors two species of these huge, fast-growing (up to 
a foot per day) grasses. They serve as a favored and nutritious 
food source for elephants and other herbivores and also as a ref- 
uge when dense groves develop. Typically, all the individual 
plants of a bamboo species in a given area flower simultaneously. 
But they usually do this only at intervals of several years. When 
it happens, the flowering provides a tremendous bounty of 
seeds — natural grain — for a host of insects, birds, and rodents, 
as well as for larger animals up to elephant size. 

Because of human activities, then, the Nilgiri elephants are 
becoming increasingly cut off from other herds and habitats, 
and the habitats within the reserve that they are supposed to be 
able to count on are subject to some degree of degradation. The 
combination of fire, overgrazing by livestock, excessive fire- 
wood cutting, and clearing of adjoining buffer zones for agri- 
culture is most intensely felt in the dry forest and thomscrub 
habitats at the low elevation end of the spectrum. 

Even so, this population ought to stay strong. Scientists be- 
lieve that the smallest number of breeding individuals required 
to maintain a healthy gene pool is about 300 for most species, 
and die Nilgiri total of about 4000 elephants is eight times that. 

Rllt tl%4M*4» M A I Tnlnee -all fU* amcwmaIa 4m a . - ““ 



276 Thb Fate op the Elephant 


fact breeding (which is never the case, due to the presence of im- 
mature, infertile, or very old animals), and unless a number of 
other idealized conditions hold as well (the sex ratio is exactly 
fifty-fifty, all mating pairs produce exactly the same number of 
offspring, etc.), the minimum number of individuals must be 
considerably larger than 500 in order to maintain viability. 

I’m not trying to make this sound complicated. I’m trying to 
explain that because of the highly skewed sex Patio in the Nilgiri 
elephant population, only a small number of males are contrib- 
uting genes. As a result, Sukumar points out, the effective pop- 
ulation size for the whole Nilgiri area is already getting 
dangerously close to the minimum of 500 breeding individuals. 
Thus can poachers threaten the future of one of the last best 
hopes for the Asian elephant almost as certainly as poachers in 
Africa have laid waste to the great herds there. 


India developed an ivory-carving industry early in its history. It 
exported ivory goods to Greece, Rome, Persia, and other Med- 
iterranean empires, and to the Orient as well. But from which 
elephant species the ivory was obtained is hard to determine, for 
India also began importing tusks from Africa early on. Elephant 
teeth were being shipped to the subcontinent from Ethiopia by 
the sixth century b.c. By then, elephant habitat in India had al- 
ready been substantially reduced, and over the centuries that fol- 
lowed, the surviving herds were increasingly prized as sources 
of elephants for war and ceremonial display. 

In his illuminating research on the ivory trade, Esmond Brad- 
ley Martin revealed that modern India probably had far and 
away more ivory carvers than any other nation. As late as 1978, 
some 7200 Indian men and boys made their living working with 
elephant teeth. They produced vast quantities of figurines and 
jewelry. But India’s specialty was meticulously worked ivory 
jalis, or screens, and inlaid furniture. The carvers also made thin 
sheets of ivory, upon which painters daubed classical scenes and 
portraits, as well as ornate ivory picture frames. 



India: Thepfakadu 277 

And who were the consumers? Ivory bracelets had become 
standard gifts for brides in India, but more than 85 percent of the 
finished ivory went to foreign outlets in Europe and the United 
States. An unknown quantity left India in the luggage of tour- 
ists, again mostly Westerners. And a quantity both unknown 
and illegal went by dhow to Arab nations. 

During the 1870s, the peak of the elephant slaughter by co- 
lonial powers in Africa, India was importing some 250 tons of 
ivory annually, more than Japan in the 1970s. Ivory imports re- 
mained high until about the middle of this century, when steep 
import duties dampened them. Further regulations and restric- 
tions followed, but the value of ivory products kept rising apace 
with the world market. In other words, ivory became harder 
than ever to obtain legally, yet pricier than ever with each pass- 
ing year. You could scarcely design a more ideal incentive for 
poaching. 

India had always continued to supply some ivory from its 
own elephants. The country experienced an elephant massacre in 
the nineteenth century at about the same time as Africa, thanks 
to India’s British colonists. Besides hunting elephants as trophy 
game, they were shooting up herds to prevent depredations on 
newly established plantations of tea, coffee, and other commod- 
ity crops. Until 1873, the British raj even offered a bounty on el- 
ephants. After game laws came into effect, tusks were still 
available from sportsmen’s kills, legally shot crop-raiders, do- 
mestic elephants that had died, and remains of wild bulls found 
in the forest. The Indian carving industry quickly absorbed 
whatever was available. 

Nearly half of all the carvers were concentrated in a fairly 
small part of the country — the southern state of Kerala. Whereas 
northern carvers, based mostly in Delhi, shifted to electric lathes 
and drills, the southern carvers continued to work with tradi- 
tional hand tools and were known for the more artistic quality 
of their sculptures. Kerala happens to have a large Muslim pop- 
ulation and close ties with Arab countries, and it is where heavy 
poaching first became noticeable during the 1970s. 

Lake Periyar Tiger Reserve, a major elephant stronghold 



*78 Thb Fatb OP the Elephant 


south of the Nilgiri area along the Western Ghats, took the first 
big hit. By the end of the 1980s, biologists were counting just 
one mature male for every twenty mature females there. As a 
precaution all too familiar to an African traveler, visitors were no 
longer allowed to travel in the park’s interior due to the danger 
of poaching gangs, some of which were up to two hundred 
strong. Smaller, loosely organized bands — the freelancers — 
made do with muzzle-loading guns, but the big gangs relied 
upon modem automatic rifles. Some used, dogs to track ele- 
phants and help separate young bulls from family groups. 

The most dangerous gang of brigands was led by a man 
named Veerappan, who by then had a bounty on his head of a 
million rupees (about U.S. $80,000 at the time). He and his out- 
law bunch were responsible for the deaths of several policemen 
and rangers as well as many scores of elephants. Authorities 
caught him once, but he bribed his way free and went on to kill 
more rangers. He was said to be a great drinker and womanizer, 
cruel to underlings who failed to do his bidding, and lethal to 
villagers who informed on him. At the same time, some hailed 
him as a sort of Robin Hood, for his poaching operations spread 
wealth among squatters and indigenous forest people displaced 
or suppressed by officialdom. 

Sukumar was put off by the quasilegend, for he had lost a 
good ranger friend to the bullets of Veerappan’s desperados. (In 
1992 , 1 learned from Sukumar that Veerappan had just killed an- 
other ranger after luring the man to a rendezvous site at which 
the outlaw was supposed to turn himself in.) Siva had come 
upon bandit gangs on three different occasions while following 
elephants in the backcountry and was alive because no one rec- 
ognized him as being associated with the reserve. Tensions were 
high. Under Indian law, a strong burden to prove guilt lay upon 
any enforcement official who killed a person in the course of 
duty. As a result, I was told, rangers found it simpler and cleaner 
to either ignore poachers or leave their bodies in the bush. Given 
the size of the gangs and their network of village informers, 
rangers often chose the path of willful ignorance. 

“You will no doubt hear officials say we have the problem un- 



India: Thepeakadu 279 

der control now,” Sukumar told me. Officials had already said 
exactly that to me. “The truth is that the killing slowed only be- 
cause the poachers at last began to run out of bulls to shoot.” 
The gangs were still intact and had moved on to poaching san- 
dalwood, which was now bringing 150 to 300 rupees (U.S. $12 
to $14) a kilo and becoming as scarce as bulls with tusks. In fact, 
the bandits were being forced to turn from sandalwood to 
poaching rosewood in the reserves. You couldn’t help but won- 
der what would be next. 

Between 6 and 9 percent of the dead bulls Sukumar recorded 
had succumbed to wounds after eluding the hunters who shot 
them. He knew that because he found the bullet-punctured bod- 
ies with tusks still attached. How many wounded bulls stayed 
alive but full of infection and irritation? How did this influence 
their next encounters with people in the forests and fields? How 
much of the aggressiveness of the Nilgiri elephants toward 
people in general was due to the basic nature of Elephas maximus ? 
How much was due to the fact that they had a lot of interactions 
with people and a high percentage of those interactions were 
painful and threatening? In the jungle, they were shot at; in the 
fields, they were continually stoned and harassed. 

Poaching gangs took other game as well as ivory-bearing el- 
ephants. In Sukumar’s opinion, chital and elephants hung out 
near fields and villages not only to get at crops but for the same 
reason many species had taken to lingering by ranger headquar- 
ters in certain African parks: because they were safer from 
poachers there than in the depths of the forest. In a vicious cycle, 
poaching probably increased crop-raiding and the likelihood of 
raiders killing villagers, which increased villagers’ resentment of 
the animals and led them to believe that there were too many 
around, which meant the villagers would be more likely to look 
the other way around poaching networks, maybe even take part 
in them. 

We may never know the answer to the question of how much 
of the Nilgiri elephants’ aggressiveness is genetic and how much 
learned, because there are no nearby groups of undisturbed ele- 
phants for comparison. In all of Asia, it would be hard to find a 



2®o The Fate of the Elephant 


group harassed neither by hunters nor by encroachment upon 
their habitat. Circumstantial evidence from earlier decades in 
different countries suggests that groups free from direct harm 
were more tolerant of humans. Common sense says they should 
be. The Kuruba and Soligal natives in Nilgiri said that the ele- 
phants didn’t used to be so hard to scare away, nor were they so 
quick to give chase. 

Extreme intolerance is learned, just as the sort of friendly tol- 
erance seen in special situations such as Kenya’s Amboseli Re- 
serve is learned. Just as pet owners and trainers know from 
ordinary experience how different approaches can yield a gentle 
dog or a mean one. You can even produce a vicious pet rabbit if 
you punish it often enough. The wonder is that the Nilgiri ele- 
phants did not bother the overwhelming majority of local people 
and visitors passing through the reserve. A number of those 
who were harmed were drunk, crazy, or acting like typical tour- 
ists and photographers who insisted upon getting way too close 
and violating the elephants’ sense of personal space. # 

With its huge, convoluted brain and prolonged period of de- 
pendency, the elephant is designed to learn from experience. It is 
prepared to absorb, process, and store information about the 
route to a dry-season waterhole, the status of members in a 
neighboring herd, where it must be wary, where it may relax a 
bit, and so on. This is part of what its much-discussed memory 
is all about, part of the reason those in captivity can be trained to 
respond to more than sixty different commands. 

Bernhard Rensch trained a young Asian elephant female to 
discriminate between twenty pairs of symbols presented on 
cards. After a year went by during which the animal had no ex- 
posure to the symbols, she was tested again and remembered 
thirteen of the pairs. Recently, Charles Hyatt and his colleagues 
at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Psychology School re- 
peated the experiment with African elephants. One subject was 
taught the same twenty pairs of symbols and, when retested af- 
ter a break of eight months, remembered sixteen of them. 

These were not simple dots and squares that the animals 
learned and later recalled, but complex symbols. Very complex. 



India: Theppakadu 281 


“It is also interesting to note,” Hyatt and his coworkers wrote in 
their report, “that in both elephant studies, even after thousands 
of trials, the human experimenters relied heavily on written 
notes to identify the correct stimuli.” In other words, the hu- 
mans couldn’t always remember which cards went with which. 
A study conducted in the mid-1970s challenged three Asian el- 
ephants to operate panel keys in certain sequences to obtain a re- 
ward. Eight years later, having had no exposure to the testing 
device in the interim, one of the animals remembered most of 
the correct sequences. 

Would experiences such as being hit with stones, wounded, or 
watching family members die alter behavior in an animal this 
bright? Surely it is only because science does not yet know how 
to speak about animals in nonmechanistic terms that it has so 
much trouble answering. Is there any doubt that these sorts of 
experiences affect attitudes in people? They shape ethnic and na- 
tional psychologies, borders, wars, vengefulness carried across 
the centuries. Indeed, they drive history. In my opinion, each 
population of elephants, including those in the Nilgiri area, has 
developed unique psychological attitudes as well as unique day- 
to-day patterns of living. They merely wait for us to accord 
them some of the qualities of consciousness we so insistently re- 
serve for ourselves. 

All right. Granted, the Nilgiri elephants have an attitude. But 
what’s the norm? This gets back to the question of where in Asia 
there is an undisturbed elephant population for comparison. But 
then, how long ago was “undisturbed” the norm? Elephants in 
India and much of the rest of Asia have been hunted by various 
tribes since long before the written word existed. And for at least 
the past 3000 to 4000 years, they have also been squeezed out of 
traditional ranges and captured to be pressed into the service of 
human society. 

In the south, Indians captured elephants singly in pits dug in 
the forest floor. In the north, the capturers used the keddah 
method, driving entire herds of elephants into corrals built of 
massive logs. To help build the corrals and drive the wild ele- 
phants into them, tame elephants were used. They also plowed 



2%% The Fate of the Elephant 


fields and logged forests; how many species are forced to partic- 
ipate in the destruction of their own environment? Most impor- 
tantly, as far as the rulers Were concerned, the giants waged war, 
serving as the precursor of tanks and heavy trucks. 

Sultans and maharajahs boasted of armies of thousands of el- 
ephants. They were probably lying to impress their neighbors 
and enemies; yet they certainly had armies of hundreds of ele- 
phants trained for fighting and hundreds more to transport sup- 
plies. For example, the Delhi sultanate of the thirteenth and 
fourteenth centuries claimed to have 3000 war elephants. In 
truth, only about a third of them were fit and trained for battle. 
Yet think what it took to muster just 1000 grey giants upon a bat- 
tlefield. Think what it was like to see rank upon rank of such 
beasts shining in full armor, two-story wooden towers for arch- 
ers swaying upon their backs, horns of hammered metal jutting 
from the headdresses covering their foreheads so that, with their 
tusks, the animals looked like triceratops. It got to be a measure 
of wealth and prestige simply to have huge numbers of ele- 
phants under royal care and available for display in processions. 
Vassal states sent elephants as tribute, and the capture of an en- 
emy’s elephants was considered one of the great spoils of war. 
Symbolic of the old wars that pitted massive tuskers against one 
another, sath-maru, or elephant wrestling, remained a spectator 
sport in India up until World War II. 

In the third century b.c., the great Indian emperor Ashok 
converted to Buddhism. Soon afterward, he issued India’s first 
known conservation law, the Fifth Pillar Edict, forbidding the 
slaughter of certain animals, including elephants, and the burn- 
ing of forests. A work on statecraft called the Arthasastra, writ- 
ten sometime between 300 b.c. and a.d. 300, also addressed the 
need to preserve elephants in the forests beyond settled land. To 
that effect, rulers were advised to set about establishing elephant 
sanctuaries complete with guard patrols. Elephant poachers 
were to be killed. 

Thinking about the battles between rangers and Veerappan’s 
outlaw brigade in the Nilgiri Reserve, it seems to me that things 
have not changed much over the centuries. Of course, the pur- 



India: Tmbvpakadv 283 

pose of those ancient sanctuaries was to ensure a supply of giant* 
for military purposes, not for wildlife appreciation. Sukumar 
told me that Ganesh worship was not common before the third 
or fourth century, and he wondered if it might not have been 
fostered by officials as a way of reinforcing elephant protection 
as the giants became scarcer. 

The norm today, and for thousands of years past, is of Asian 
elephants contending with an array of human depredations. If 
one day we wanted to restore a population of Elephas maximus 
within a truly pristine setting, it would be hard to know what 
sort of ecological and behavioral patterns to promote as “natu- 
ral.” The biological data painstakingly gathered by Sukumar, 
Ajay, Siva, and others in the Nilgiri Reserve tell us about animals 
whose habitat use has been rearranged by disturbances and 
whose population structure lacks adult males. It can only go so 
far in telling us which things to save in an effort to save the 
species. 

For example, Sukumar had never seen a band of bulls larger 
than three in the reserve, and 93 percent of the mature males he 
saw apart from female-led groups were solitary. Is this a char- 
acteristic trait of Elephas maximus that has helped it adapt to its 
environment, or a consequence of Homo sapiens looting herds 
for teeth? Some Nilgiri males seem to become independent of 
family groups at an earlier age than is typical for African savanna 
elephants. We also noticed wild Nilgiri males showing signs of 
heavy musth at age twenty or so, whereas Joyce Poole seldom 
saw full musth in African savanna elephants before their mid- 
thirties. Was the difference natural? Did it suggest the intriguing 
possibility that Asian elephants are more similar to African for- 
est elephants, which also appear to become independent at a 
young age? Or was it another artifact of poaching and the re- 
sulting absence of mature bulls? 

Consider the saga of the first of several small Nilgiri herds 
that made their way into the Chitoor district of the state of An- 
dhra Pradesh. Wild elephants had not been seen there for gen- 
erations, possibly for four hundred years. Did the elephants 
disperse as a result of normal population dynamics, or as refit- 



284 The Fate of the Elephant 

gees trying to escape attacks by poachers and the social instabil- 
ity that followed? Totally inexperienced with wild elephants, 
folks in Andhra Pradesh came bearing offerings of fruits and 
sweets as they would to elephants at temples. They hoped to 
touch the sacred beasts and be blessed. Instead of blessings, they 
received blows. Others, hearing a commotion in their fields at 
night, ran out with sticks to shoo off what they thought were 
buffalo. Smoosh. The first seven elephant colonists had so far 
killed something like twenty-eight people. A research student 
recorded one of the elephants dragging the body of a man it had 
killed into a pit and covering it with mud. 

Was this degree of violence to be expected if wild elephants 
were lucky enough to increase in number and expand their range 
elsewhere? Or was it because this herd had particularly unpleas- 
ant memories of Nilgiri? Or some other reason: a biologist told 
me that early in their travels beyond the reserve, these elephants 
had been involved in a nasty encounter with villagers, who 
killed a baby elephant while trying to capture it. Was that what 
made the animals so quick to lash out? 

From here, the questions could lead into moral territory, and 
maybe they should. The tale of the Andhra Pradesh elephants al- 
most demands that we consider whether the attitudes of those 
animals were not in some part justified. What about the attitudes 
of the crop-raiders in Masinagudi? Is there or is there not any 
justification for putting the desires and reactions of elephants on 
an equal footing with the desires and reactions of people? Odd 
though it might seem by Western standards, hard-pressed farm- 
ers such as Boran Gowda would be among the first to answer: 
there is. Animal rights are built into his view of the world. If 
there were ever a place to pursue the subject of species sharing 
our moral realm, it would be India, where elephants, real and sa- 
cred, are inextricably linked to the efforts and aspirations of hu- 
man culture, and v/here the potent concept of ahimsa is part of 
everyday life. 



TEN 


India: Mudumalai 
Sanctuary 


ISISISIST Close by the village of Theppakadu in southern 
India’s Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is the Mudumalai Sanctuary 
Elephant Camp. Here, at the time I visited, in September of 
1989. government-salaried mahouts, or elephant handlers, were 
training young elephants to perform a Hindu ceremony as part 
of a show for tourists. The prospective devotees, whose juvenile 
hair made them look to me like balding mammoths, learned to 
circle a shrine clockwise, the holy way. While circling, each held 
a bell with its trunk and rang it — the Hindu method of calling 
the gods to a site of worship. Then, facing the shrine, the ele- 
phants would put the bells down and swing their trunks repeat- 
edly back over their heads the way a human worshipper would 
pass an arm over his or her head as a sign of reverence. Finally, 
the young elephants touched their ears, another sign of rever- 
ence, prostrated themselves together before the altar, and nod- 
ded their heads as if in prayer. 

In the meantime, older elephants from the camp were taking 
visitors on rides through the forest andsdong a canyon rim to a 
scenic waterfall. “Please don’t be telling any tourists,” a mahout 
said to me, “but one of our riding elephants is blind. She is an 
old woman now and totally blind. We are putting her in the mid- 
dle of the line, and she follows the others very well. You would 
never know this old woman is using her ears to find the way in- 
stead of her eyes. If it is necessary, she is using her trunk too, like 
the cane.” 

Trust. And all the while, wild elephants rambled by within 



286 The Fate of the Elephant 

earshot of the camp and trails. Others waited near the forest 
edge for nightfall and a visit to the fields. Once in a while, tame 
bulls were ridden from the camp to agricultural areas and put to 
work driving off" wild crop-raiders. 

The camp elephants are primarily kept to be used for selective 
logging within the reserve; they haul heavy, green teak logs off 
the hillsides and out of ravines to trucks waiting at the end of the 
nearest road. Elephants are cheaper to purchase and cheaper to 
operate than bulldozers and skidders. And their working life 
span is around three decades, compared to eight to ten years for 
the average machine. Of equal importance, since this is a pro- 
tected area, the elephants cause much less damage to the ground- 
cover than machines do, leading to less habitat change and 
erosion. More trees must be felled just to give heavy equipment 
sufficient room to maneuver, and even then the machines simply 
cannot get to a lot of places the elephants can in steep-sided 
country. ♦ 

Muddy roads, slick slopes, and flourishing leeches shut down 
logging operations during monsoon time, which adds up to a 
third of the year. Providing rides and putting on demonstrations 
of log handling for tourists at that time gives the elephants ex- 
ercise and the mahouts a chance to continue training. Once the 
demanding labor of logging resumes, some of the weaker, 
older, and pregnant animals remain behind at the camp and con- 
tinue to provide visitors with a hands-on experience of giants. 

The rains had pushed the last loggers out of the high forests 
shortly before I arrived, and the slow, easy months for working 
elephants had begun. Each morning, men and boys took them a 
short way downhill from camp to a river for a bath, scrubbing 
them with the cones of pandattis, a local tree, until pink skin 
showed here and there through the grey pigment and caked dirt. 

I loved to wander along the riverbank among the beasts and 
their keepers in the early light. Morning is the time of ritual 
washing for Hindus everywhere. On the porches and by the 
windows of countless homes, men and women were perform- 
ing ablutions and offering praise. Millions more waded into 
streams and rivers throughout the land to cleanse themselves for 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 287 

the new day. It seemed only right that the elephants would be 
doing the same. 

After wading in to splash, suck up water into their trunks and 
squirt it into their mouths (one of the 121 Sanskrit names for el- 
ephant is “the one who drinks twice”), and shower themselves 
for a while, the beasts lay down on their sides in the river on 
command. Sometimes their heads went completely under, leav- 
ing only the trunk tip above the water as a snorkel. Legs 
sprawled to the side like half-submerged logs, and the mahouts 
paid careful attention to washing the feet and nails. They then 
crawled up the legs onto the round bellies, which bulged above 
the surface like boulders, smooth and sunstruck, glistening with 
droplets. Clambering about on elephant terrain, the mahouts 
chatted to each other and to their animals while scrubbing away 
at square yards of flesh. 

Many mahouts washed their elephants twice daily in the slow 
season. One purpose of such regular care is hygienic — to keep 
the animals free of parasites such as ticks, mites, lice, and leeches 
and to cleanse any scrapes or wounds to ward off infection. But 
the mahouts feel that it is equally important merely to have a 
time each day for extended care and tending, a laying on of 
hands to reinforce over and over this most unusual and crucial 
bond between a titan and a human. And anyway, they told me, 
the elephants loved the water. They recalled stories of elephants 
brought from dry regions such as Bihar and introduced to stand- 
ing water for the first time staying immersed for days, refusing 
to get out. At wits’ end, some handlers tried to dislodge one such 
animal by sending burning tires down the river toward it. The 
beast supposedly snuffed them out one by one, having also dis- 
covered the delight of squirting unlimited amounts of water 
with its trunk. 

Children and bonnet macaques scrambled along the banks 
beside me as I watched the morning elephant wash. Women 
came in pairs and small groups, dipped vessels in the elephant- 
churned water, set them on their heads, walked back uphill. 
Such a simple, practical sequence, and yet the grace that ema- 
nates from a woman sheathed in a bright, silken sari scooping 



288 The Fate of the Elephant 


water and walking while balancing a vessel upon her head is 
boundless. Moving through golden light reflected off the river, 
the women seemed themselves perfect vessels of the spirit. Aris- 
ing from the water, the elephants shone as well — part god and 
part Pleistocene behemoth. With their hairs freed of the usual 
thick coating of mud and dust, even mature animals showed a 
touch of the old mammoth shag, and each hair sparkled with 
crystal droplets. 

The mahouts led the younger elephants back to camp and 
rode the older ones, then cooked them breakfast: balls or cakes 
of rough wheat and ragi, the same stuff elephants and farmers 
were fighting over nightly not far away. The mush was mixed 
with jaggery, a kind of molasses distilled from sugar-cane juice, 
and, on occasion, salt and mineral supplements. Rice and coco- 
nut go into daily rations for the ill and pregnant. 

Laden with cakes, I stuffed them one at a time into the mouth 
of an old, sunken-templed female towering above me. Her dame 
was Godavri, age seventy-three, retired after a lifetime of work. 
The mahouts call such elephants pensioners. One named Tara 
lived on here until the age of seventy-eight. She had retired in 
her mid-sixties, and the first thing she did upon being pensioned 
off was to get pregnant, a decade beyond the age at which most 
females cease breeding. 

Toward evening, most of the elephants would again be taken 
to the river to drink and bathe. Afterward, they would be led 
into the jungle uphill, where they would be turned loose to feed 
through the night. Not entirely loose. They would be hobbled 
by a short, thick rope or chain between the front legs. A very 
long, heavy chain would be placed around their neck with one 
end dragging free to help mark a path for mahouts coming to 
collect their animals in the morning. 

Every so often, an elephant learned to haul the chain in with 
its trunk and to carry part of it coiled there and the rest slung 
over its back so that it left no trail. That way, the animal might 
get in a little more foraging time before the mahout found it. 
The mahouts would place bells on one or more of the elephants 
in a group to better mark their whereabouts, but some elephants 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 289 


learned to stuff the bells with mud so the clapper couldn’t give 
them away either. On the other hand, I also met a big bull newly 
laid off from logging work by the rains who had come back to 
camp on his own in the morning. He was carrying a huge log he 
had found in the forest. 

Not far from the Nilgiri Reserve once lived a mahout who, 
like many in the elephant-riding trade, worked mainly in log- 
ging, and, again like many in his trade, was fond of arak, ot 
whiskey. So as soon as he bathed and fed his elephant, a stout 
bull, in the evening, this mahout, who was rather stout himself, 
was likely to ride his bull to town. At the tavern, he would buy 
one bottle for his elephant and several more for himself. When 
he eventually keeled over, the bull would pick him up like a log, 
wrapping his trunk around the mahout s body and resting him 
on his two great tusks. Then he would bear his drunken friend 
home. Once there, he laid the mahout on the doorstep and 
waited until someone came to drag him inside. Then he headed 
back to his corral. 

They might have grown old together, those two, but the bull 
died suddenly of rabies, or possibly anthrax, in his early fifties. 
One week later, the mahout died, of causes unknown. Possibly 
anthrax; possibly a broken heart. Some say he went to look for 
his elephant. A couple of very reliable people I met in the area 
claimed to have known this mahout personally. Everyone 
seemed to know the story. Similar stories can be heard in other 
parts of Asia. I wouldn’t claim that they are all true, but with el- 
ephants, you don’t need to make up all that much. 


A couple of miles down the road from Theppakadu was a sub- 
sidiary camp where the mahouts and their families lived, along 
with a number of elephants not currently being used at the tour- 
ist center. Just outside the grass and bamboo huts, fires smoked 
in the drizzling rain and playing children dashed past tethered 
giants. Three large bulls guarded the encampment from wild el- 
ephant groups that frequently used this same riverine area. 



a#> The Fate of the Elephant 

Another camp bull l passed had a lot of wildness and white in 
his eyes. He was in musth, said the mahouts; take care not to get 
too close. Unsure what “too close ” was, I edged by him on my 
way to the river. From Africa, as well as my recent days in the 
Nilgiri bush, I expected that an elephant about to charge would 
kink its tail and draw in its head, bringing the trunk bade in 
preparation for a strike. Often, the animal would even take a few 
steps backward before beginning a rush. B^t in the instant be- 
fore this bull lunged at me, whipping out his trunk as he hit the 
end of the tether that held his rear leg, all he did was widen his 
eyes a fraction. Luckily, I caught that change and was leaping 
away as he lashed at me. 

Yaaah! Missed, you ornery bugger. I gave him the finger and 
was backing away with a stupid grin on my face when I froze, 
because I suddenly felt a trunk touching my back. Turning 
slowly, I was relieved to find that the elephant greeting me was 
a three-year-old bull about my height. . 

As the juvenile probed, so did I, stroking its hairy head, al- 
ready taking on the marked dome shape of the species, and ex- 
amining the trunk tip. The little bull probed slightly harder and 
then placed that bristle-haired head against me and began to 
shove me around a little. I knew that he was testing me, but I 
didn’t know the camp protocol for shoving back. The last thing 
I wanted to risk was offending any mahouts and losing their co- 
operation, so I led the polite tussle in the direction of one of 
them and raised my eyebrows in an appeal. He waved his hand 
at the animal and told it in Tamil to quit, and it did. Smiling, he 
let me know that several mahouts were Tamils who spoke their 
own language to the elephants. Quite a few of the giants were 
bilingual, responding to commands in both Hindi, the standard, 
and Tamil. 

Near one end of camp, where several elephants were tethered 
together, a dozen or so men had gathered inside a bamboo build- 
ing to cook the elephants’ breakfast. They had made several 
dozen cakes and were stirring grain in a huge iron kettle to pre- 
pare the next batch while the first one cooled. Just the day be- 
fore, they had thrown a party for the elephants to mark the end 
of the long, hard logging season and thank these animals. “They 



\HD\k\ MUOQMM.M SANCTUAir 

feed us all year long; it was our turn to feed them, ” a mahout said 
of the affair. 

At the party, the handlers had painted the animals' foreheads, 
emphasizing the center, where devout Hindus paint their own 
foreheads with the sacred tika, symbol of the god within, locale 
of the hidden third eye that will open upon enlightenment. 
Next, they ceremonially thanked the giants and praised their 
abilities. After that, they presented them with a feast of rice, 
fruits, and sweets purchased with money out of the mahouts’ 
own pockets. 

Today, wild boars had come in from the jungle to scavenge 
leftovers, snuffling just beyond the cook shack. Perched on ele- 
phant hitching posts close by, the ubiquitous bonnet macaques 
watched and commented, waiting for an opportunity to grab 
their share of scraps. The mahouts were telling me how one man 
among them could work his bull elephant even during musth. 
Part of his secret was to wear the same clothes for a month. They 
were about to let me in on the rest of his secret when through 
the doorway came the young bull that had been testing me. He 
was given a cake. But when he tried to push closer for more, he 
was shooed away again. Apparently, he had free run of the camp 
up to a point, and I had just seen the point. The other part of the 
mahout’s secret, his companions went on, was that he had 
worked with elephants for half a century — longer than I had 
been alive, they laughed. 

Two other pieces of elephant information were imparted at 
the cook shack. I was told that the camp manager had seen a 
mother lift her baby up onto a ledge using her trunk, reinforcing 
tales of elephants lifting young over fences. And in regard to 
memory, a cow elephant who had spent one year at this camp 
was transferred sixty to ninety miles south. Ten years lata, she 
was frightened by something and ran away. She showed up here 
about twenty days after that. 


Some say that Asian elephants were first tamed 3000 to 4000 
years ago, bat tribes surely kept pet elephants before that. In the 



292 The Fate of the Elephant 


Nilgiri area, where the lifestyle of indigenous people and vil- 
lagers hasn’t really changed over the millennia, and where ele- 
phants mingle freely with families in the mahouts’ camps while 
wild elephants trumpet in the distance, it was easy to envision 
how the human-domestic elephant relationship might have 
started: elephant hunters bring back a surviving calf that lin- 
gered by its mother’s body; an orphaned animal wanders in from 
the forest on its own and is rewarded with $ome extra grain in a 
good harvest year; a juvenile is caught in a pit meant for pigs or 
deer and gradually accepts food and caresses from curious 
people. 

What is unusual is that in all the centuries that the Asian ele- 
phant has served as a domestic animal, it has never been truly do- 
mesticated in the sense of being bred in captivity and gradually 
turned into a creature slightly different from its wild ancestor. 
As discussed briefly in the first chapter, nearly all Asian ele- 
phants used for domestic purposes were still captured in the^wild 
until recently. 

Two reasons for this tradition are given by most Asians. The 
first is a matter of opinion — namely, that wild-caught elephants 
become the safest to work with. Elephants raised among people 
from birth have no innate fear of them, they say. Sooner or later, 
in one of those delicate, outer-edge-of-control negotiations be- 
tween giant and mahout, the giant, if it is captive-born and es- 
pecially if it is male, is going to do what it wants, and the 
mahout is going to be hurt or killed. A matter of opinion, yet an 
opinion tested often enough over time to warrant respect. I 
spoke with quite a few elephant handlers in Asia who knew of 
someone who had raised an elephant from birth and found it to 
be a risky work partner. The usual description of the animal was 
“spoiled.” 

The second reason for working with wild-caught elephants is 
economic. Breeding a female means losing her from the work 
force for nineteen to twenty-two months of gestation followed 
by up to two or three years of nursing. It is far more efficient to 
snatch an already weaned youngster from the bush. Actually, the 
elephant need not be all that young. Serious training cannot be- 
gin until the animals are at least five years old, and they will not 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 293 

be ready for preliminary logging lessons until they are teenagers. 
Contrary to what you might expect, the mahouts insisted, it is 
not so much more difficult to train a wild adult than a wild ju- 
venile. More dangerous, yes, which is why juveniles are pre- 
ferred. But the older ones catch on just as quickly and become 
just as tractable. 

Now that wild capture was difficult or illegal almost every- 
where, mahouts still did not like to breed captive animals to one 
another. Instead, most preferred to tether or hobble an oestrous 
female out in the forest and let wild bulls come to sow their seed 
in her. Again, there was both an intuitive reason and a pragmatic 
one behind this practice. The pragmatic reason was that with a 
wild bull, the mahout did not have to worry about getting him 
back under control once mating was accomplished — and didn’t 
have to worry about a pair of giants thundering around camp 
while mating was under way. 

And the intuitive reason? Domestic elephants, it was feared, 
lose some of the vital qualities that will produce powerful, 
healthy offspring. Science would not necessarily agree, since ge- 
netic material does not operate quite like that. But perhaps the 
traditional belief was a way of getting at a suite of other, genuine 
cause-effect relationships. Juvenile elephants caught in the field 
were likely to prove robust, because they had already undergone 
testing by nature that eliminated the weaker, less genetically fit 
individuals. If they went on to survive the stressful and some- 
times physically punishing process of being “broken” — con- 
fined and forced to submit to human will — their vigor was 
indeed good. By contrast, a mahout might invest years in raising 
a captive-bom elephant only to discover that it was inherently 
frail and sickly and ultimately useless as a working animal. 

An important corollary of the way Asians replenished their 
supply of tame elephants is that the gene pools of the domestic 
and wild populations have long been virtually identical and still 
are, for the most part. This is a rare instance of an endangered 
species with some 16,000 fully representative, genetically di- 
verse members in captivity. All the ammals ever needed to re- 
stock a depleted range are at hand. 

Still, three problems have arisen, beginning with the fact that 



*94 TU* Fatb op thb Elephant 


most of the range can no longer be restocked, having been trans- 
formed into human range. 

Problem number two is that the number of captive elephants 
is in the midst of a steep, long-term decline. Machines are ren- 
dering the giants obsolete in the realm of transportation at the 
same time that the severe deforestation taking place throughout 
tropical Asia is throwing elephants out of work by the thou- 
sands, removing the main impetus for keeping them. Recently 
released studies sponsored by the United Nations show that the 
rate of destruction of tropical forests is more rapid than even the 
most alarmist broadsides of environmental organizations said it 
was, proceeding 50 percent faster than projected by the last re- 
port, in 1980. India was one of the nations found to be losing its 
tree cover on such a vast scale — ten times the previous esti- 
mate — that global forest-loss percentages had to be revised. 

As native woodlands are cut and then converted to cropland 
or monocultures of commercially valuable trees such as coco- 
nut, oil palm, or teak, not only are wild elephants displaced, but 
mahouts find fewer and fewer acres on which their tame ele- 
phants can be turned loose to forage. The mahouts either have to 
begin buying forage or periodically go out to the nearest avail- 
able habitat and cut grass, palm fronds, bamboo, and other ele- 
phant groceries themselves. Feeding a captive elephant therefore 
becomes a more expensive, time-consuming proposition and, in 
the end, a less desirable one. 

During the height of poaching in the Nilgiri Reserve, the ma- 
houts had to keep their bulls in at night and bring them food in- 
stead of letting them hobble through the jungle. Most of the 
tuskers survived, but they and many of the other animals at the 
Mudumalai Sanctuary Elephant Camp will probably wind up 
unemployed within a few years, since the available big timber in 
the sanctuary will be gone and new trees will not yet have 
reached commercial size. 

Ironically, the elephant camp already includes elephants given 
to the government by an enterprise that had to scale down its 
own logging operations — the Bombay-Burma Trading Com- 
pany. Its elephant corps numbered more than 3000 back around 
the turn of the century. Those were the days when rivers from 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 295 

the Ganges to the Irrawaddy ran thick with rafts of the teak logs 
cut by this colonial monopoly, and special teams of the strongest 
tuskers had to be sent in to pry apart logjams in the shallows 
each year after the monsoon floods receded. 

The third problem is that population declines coupled with 
the listing of the Asian elephant as an endangered species have 
led to regular breeding of captive elephants with other captive 
elephants, and the gene pools of wild and domestic groups are at 
last beginning to diverge. 


At Theppakadu, the captive-born young are separated from 
their mothers early, before one year of age. Prior to that, the ba- 
bies are trained to enter a special stockade. One day after a baby 
is enticed in, the mother is abruptly dragged away with the help 
of two tuskers. Seven to ten days later, if the young one is faring 
reasonably well after this forced weaning, it is shipped off to an- 
other camp, where its dependency and, the handlers hope, its af- 
fections, are transferred to its new human tenders. 

Each elephant has one mahout as its chief trainer. This man is 
the animal’s steady human companion from the age of six 
months until six years. After an elephant reaches six, the mahout 
takes on a full-time assistant, or apprentice, called a kavadai. The 
growing giant now has two male humans devoting a good por- 
tion of their lives to it. Boys as young as ten may become assis- 
tants, and the apprenticeship usually lasts about ten years. At the 
outset, the assistant is mainly a hauler of chains and ropes and a 
shoveler of dung (no small job, with 90 percent of the hundreds 
of pounds an elephant eats daily being passed as manure). 

In the course of his chores, the apprentice comes to know the 
behavior of elephants in general and the temperament of his an- 
imal in particular. At least, he ought to. The sign of his having 
succeeded is being allowed to take off the giant’s foot shackles 
when it is to be moved. It means that the elephant accepts and 
trusts >the man as a handler; some elephants never will. It also 
means that the mahout accepts and trusts the assistant to handle 
the elephant. 



396 Tub Fate op the Elephant 

Up to age eighteen, elephants have it better than their keepers 
in some respects. While apprentices work mainly as cleaners un- 
til that age, elephants are merely doing schoolwork. Early on, 
the mahout begins teaching basic commands: go, back up, 
kneel, etc. From the age of five, the lessons become more com- 
plex and begin to include the techniques necessary to the ani- 
mal’s future work: hauling, sorting, loading, and stacking logs, 
for example, plus working in tandem with other elephants to 
handle the biggest fallen trees. Still, as One mahout told me, 
“The elephant stays like a teenager. It is jolly and likes to dance. 
It has a free life until eighteen or twenty. Then it goes to the 
working camps, and after that, it is too tired out to be jolly 
anymore.” 

Naturally, traditions vary from region to region and from one 
mahout to another. Some, like the mahout who rode to the tav- 
ern on his elephant’s back and returned cradled on his elephant’s 
tusks, prefer to stick with one animal through a lifetime. Others 
have less compunction about shifting from one animal «to the 
next. A lot depends on the elephant as well. Like mahouts, cer- 
tain elephants appear to be intensely loyal, while others are more 
flexible about whom they respond to. And to make the situation 
still more complex, there are mahouts who encourage their ele- 
phants to dislike other mahouts. You might expect giant-tamers 
to be a proud lot, and they are. That means they can also be 
highly competitive, and this is a reflection of it. The interesting 
thing is that the elephants can be trained to respond neutrally to 
visitors but to challenge anyone who tries to issue commands re- 
served for the mahout. 

In the opinion of some observers, aggressive trainers tend to 
turn out aggressive elephants, and calm trainers turn out calm 
elephants; lazy men, lazy elephants, and so on. And every once 
in a while, a trainer simply ends up dead for reasons no one but 
the elephant quite understands. Manslaughter is one obvious 
reason why not every elephant has the same mahout all its life. 
Curiously, a potentially lethal elephant seldom lacks for new 
candidates to be its mahout. As l said, mahouts can be highly 
competitive. 



INDIA*. Mudumalai Sanctuary 297 

“Behold: I am the mahout of the elephant that has killed a 
dozen mahouts.” 

Some of the traditional methods of handling elephants in In- 
dia are extremely harsh. To restrain a newly captured, willful, or 
musth animal, its leg may be clamped in an iron hoop with 
inward-pointing spikes. The harder the animal strains against 
the device, the deeper the points bite. A long pole, called a 1 /alia 
hole, is used to prod the giant in the sensitive ankle and wrist 
joints while the handler keeps out of reach of the trunk and 
tusks. Some of these goads have blunt ends and are thrust so as 
to bruise the small bones that protrude near the surface of the 
lower foot. Others are actual spears but have a hilt on the blade 
to limit penetration. 

Mahouts usually carry a cherya hole, a short rod with a blunt 
metal end, also used for walloping joints or, when mounted, the 
top of the skull. Close to the Indian border in Nepal, I rode on 
several occasions behind mahouts who whacked the top of the 
elephant’s head with the dull edge of the large, curved kukri dag- 
gers men carry in that country. Cruder yet is the technique I saw 
of incising a wound atop the elephant’s head and worrying it 
with a knife blade to get the animal to respond. One Nepali ma- 
hout carried a hammer expressly for pounding on his elephant’s 
head. Whether the weapon was a hammer, knife, or cherya hole, 
the giants would stagger with a loud groan when struck. 

In a modern-day version of going on a tiger shoot with the 
maharajah, I rode elephant-back with a scientist who shot the 
cats with tranquilizers in order to fit them with radio collars in 
Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. I also rode elephants in order to 
observe the rare Indian rhinoceros on the flood plains of Chit- 
wan’s lowland Terai region. An elephant’s back offers the best 
perch for viewing in the tall elephant grass — and the safest one, 
since even an aggressive mother rhino with a calf is unwilling to 
charge an elephant when surprised at close quarters. In all those 
trips, surrounded by the wild and lovely and unexpected, what 
I was most aware of was the thud of the mahout’s bludgeon and 
the shuddering of the great beast beneath us. 

Mahouts nearly always carry a thoity, or ankus, as their pri- 



W* Thi Fatb OP THB Eibphant 

mary instrument of control. It, too, is a short stick, but with a 
sharp, curved, finger-length hook at the end. When the mahout 
is afoot, the hook is used to grab loose folds of skin along the leg 
to urge the animal forward or backward. If the animal is not es- 
pecially responsive, the handler can easily dig deeper to get its 
attention. And if that doesn’t work, he may hook the sensitive 
folds of the skin around the zygomatic arch, just below the eye. 
Mounted, he will use the ankus on the ear, another sensitive re- 
gion. Abused elephants will have open wounds, holes through 
the ear, and paralyzed nerves there and around the eye. 

The chief means of controlling an elephant is through nudges 
from the mounted mahout’s toes at the base of the elephant’s ear. 
Together with voice commands, this is sufficient to control the 
largest of elephants if it is paying attention. At most, an arm 
holding an ankus or cherya hole might be upraised as a threat — 
the equivalent of "showing the whip” to a horse. The rapport 
between a good working elephant and a good mahout seems al- 
most telepathic, especially since the animal anticipates much of 
what is expected of it and proceeds to do it unasked. And therein 
lies the tragedy of a mahout who feels he must abuse an elephant 
to make it do his bidding. , 

One reason I thoroughly enjoyed my days at the elephant 
camps of Mudumalai was that trainers there had started phasing 
out the use of iron hooks by 1932, encouraged in that direction 
by the British. The key instrument of control now was a simple, 
slender switch cut from a bush in the forest. It was little more 
than a token, the physical equivalent of raising your voice a bit. 
It was also a clear sign that the psychology of positive reinforce- 
ment and bonding prevailed over punishment and the avoidance 
of pain. The only time I saw switches used to really hurt an el- 
ephant was when an inexperienced young one got grabby with 
a visitor at the tourist camp. I am not sure the animal realized 
that it could have hurt the person, but by the time three mahouts 
were done whipping it, stinging it from head to toe, it probably 
had a pretty clear idea that tourists were not to be bullied. 

The absence of the ankus made the camp elephants gentler 
than elephants elsewhere, I was told, and it was one reason some 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 299 

of the males could be worked even in musth. This was econom- 
ically important, for musth can last three months, and some 
bulls come into musth more than once a year. 

About the time the ankus was abandoned, mahouts here also 
changed the way elephants hauled heavy loads behind them. In- 
stead of putting the animal in a harness, as is done in most of 
Asia, they began training their animals to simply pull on a rope 
that they gripped in their huge molar teeth. The rope is less 
costly and couldn’t be simpler to operate. An elephant cannot 
haul quite as much weight as it can with a harness, but that is the 
point A harness encourages workers to overload an animal, and 
regularly overloaded elephants are prone to develop heart con- 
ditions, arthritic joints, and other ailments that shorten their ef- 
fective working life. 

When an elephant is toiling on steep terrain with a harness, 
it strains constantly against the burden dragging behind it. 
But with a rope, it can drop its load to rest while going uphill, 
and it can drop a load that threatens to pull it off balance, thereby 
avoiding injury. The only drawback anyone mentioned was 
that an elephant with a rope clamped in its teeth sometimes 
gets winded, since about 40 percent of its air intake is nor- 
mally through its mouth, the other 60 percent being through 
the nostrils and trunk. Again, though, this becomes a check 
against overexertion. All things considered, the rope gives the 
elephant more leeway, and this becomes part of the atmo- 
sphere of cooperation between individual mahouts and individ- 
ual elephants. 


U^1SIS151S1515151SIS1S1515’ 

I began learning names at the mahouts’ camp. A bull that had 
been staring hard at me with crescents of white in his eyes — not 
the musth male who tried to slam-dunk me soon after 1 arrived, 
but one tethered closer to the cook shack — was Ravindran, age 
twenty-eight. His mahout was Subbaraman, the old man who 
had been a trainer for fifty years and claimed to be able to handle 
his bull during musth. Born in 1929, Subbaraman has survived 



300 Thb Fatb of the Elbphant 


a viper bite as well as this bull. His helper, named Maringan, was 
not so lucky. Six years before, when Ravindran was in musth, 
he drove a tusk through Maringan’s shoulder and neck. Al- 
though the man survived, he can do only light chores around 
camp now, handling what the mahouts call “soft elephants.” 
Maringan still cannot go near Ravindran. Neither can anyone 
else save Subbaraman and his new helper, his son. 

During that time of musth madness when he impaled Ma- 
ringan, Ravindran had broken loose and was storming around 
camp like an animated thunderclap. He held the entire place hos- 
tage for four days until a government veterinarian, Dr. V. Krish- 
namurthy, arrived and climbed onto the back of another bull 
behind its mahout. This elephant’s name was Tippoo, after Tip- 
poo Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore. Tippoo Sultan fought British 
colonial forces to a standstill for years, using the mountainous 
Nilgiri area as a base. Tippoo the elephant ran down Ravindran, 
and Dr. Krishnamurthy was able to tranquilize the musth bull, 
shooting a drug-laden dart from a blowgun. • 

“A splendid example of why we prefer our elephants to be 
from the wild,” the veterinarian told me during an inspection 
visit. “You see, Ravindran was born in a camp. Of course, it did 
not help that his first mahout was absolutely worthless. Now 
that Subbaraman is retiring, Ravindran is beginning with his 
third mahout, and he is still a problem. In musth, he fights with 
other bulls and causes headaches for everybody.” 

Dr. K — as I came to think of him — was utterly at home as he 
strolled among the camp elephants, putting a few older ones 
through their paces, coaxing a trick or two from the younger 
ones, dispensing treats. He said that he had lately been called 
upon to tranquilize two wild bulls that were part of the trouble- 
prone group colonizing Andhra Pradesh. These were the ele- 
phants who had been bashing the people who came to worship 
them. This time, they were merely ravaging a sugar-cane field. 
Dr. K darted the bulls, hauled them into a lorry with the help of 
tame bulls, and drove them some distance to a release site in the 
forest. They returned to the same cane plantation within days. 
When Dr. K went back after them and managed to tranquilize 



India: Mudumaiai Sanctuary 301 

one of the raiding bulls, he didn’t bother trying to transplant it 
again. Instead, he kept it confined and proceeded to tame it. 

At least the flow of genes from the wild into captive popula- 
tions hadn’t dried up completely. But the capture and removal 
of any bull was bad news for the wild population because of its 
deficit of males. “Truly, we have made some great strides in con- 
servation,” insisted Dr. K, “especially in tiger conservation. I 
am so delighted that everyone admires this noble cat, because in 
its name we have saved habitats for all kinds of wildlife. But I 
must tell you, the actual amount of wildlife reserves and national 
parks in this country is still no more than 1 percent of the total 
land area.” 

I had read that India contained 68 national parks plus 367 sanc- 
tuaries, adding up to 3 percent of the nation’s land area. “To be 
sure, forestry officials list a high number of reserves on the 
books,” Dr. K agreed, “but many of those are in fact inhabited 
by squatters and are cut over. Not far from here, in Tamil Nadu, 
39,000 acres of one reserve have been encroached upon by 
people, and the government has decided to give some of this 
land to them outright.” 

Now in his sixties, Dr. K had at various times and in various 
capacities been in charge of the health and welfare of the major- 
ity of working elephants in a large part of southern India. He 
was supposed to be retired. In reality, he was busier than ever, 
serving as a sort of veterinarian emeritus and general consultant, 
drawing upon decades of experience throughout the country. 
He was a fine scientific observer. To say that he was immersed 
in elephants was only the literal truth. His duties included mak- 
ing post-mortem examinations of both camp elephants and wild 
ones, and he performed these by climbing completely inside die 
body cavity of the animal, amid “miles and miles of intestines.” 
He was able to use the forensic evidence during testimony 
against poachers in court. “But, you know, I never touch a dead 
elephant or a live one without taking a bath first in the morning. 
A ceremonial bath, as we Brahmins do. Then I make a brief puja 
[prayer ceremony] and put the caste mark on my forehead,” he 
added. 



302 Thb Fatb of thb Elbphant 

In keeping with his Brahmin beliefs. Dr. K was a strict veg- 
etarian. “I do it out of respect for the elephants,” he told rhe, 
only partly joking. “More than 60 percent of Indians are still 
vegetarians, you know. It is why we still have wildlife. Once we 
all start to eat meat, like you people, there will be no more ele- 
phants, no more anything. And more and more Hindus are 
starting to eat meat.” Dr. K was lucky he could chew anything, 
as he suffered from terrible teeth. They gave him one of the 
world’s most original smiles, though. He u$ed it all the time. His 
warm, keenly intelligent eyes would dance between those curi- 
ous tusks and his bald pate, which was noticeably domed in 
front like an Asian elephant’s, as he recounted tales of giants 
from a limitless trove. 

Among Dr. K’s physical characteristics was a scar on his 
shoulder from where a camp bull he knew well suddenly lunged 
and nicked him. The bull was slightly in musth. “Many, many 
have tried to get me over the years,” he said. “You have to have 
an instinct for these things, a kind of sixth sense, to stay out of 
trouble.” He agreed with the tracker Chenna, who stood up to 
elephant charges, that it was crucial to avoid showing or feeling 
fear in a tight situation, since elephants could smell or otherwise 
detect it. That understanding, too, had helped keep him alive. 

“I believe the closest I came to dying was when I was walking 
with three other guys on a road in the park and a wild tusker be- 
gan to chase us,” Dr. K remembered. “We ran a hundred yards, 
but the elephant kept coming and was closing on us quickly. 
One of us almost surely would have been killed, but an auto- 
mobile happened by at just that moment. It stopped very fast 
with its brakes squealing. That made the elephant halt. We 
jumped into the car and hurried away in the other direction.” 
Once in a while, you get through on nothing more than blind 
luck. 

Another story, again starring the bull Tippoo, was that the 
mahout who had handled him for many years finally retired and 
moved away. The man’s son took over and became the only per- 
son who could handle Tippoo, especially during musth, when 
this bull turned extra tough. After an absence of four years, 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 303 

the old mahout came back to camp from retirement. He walked 
up to Tippoo and controlled him at once with no more than a 
few words. Praise Shiva that he could. During one subsequent 
musth period, Tippoo got so out of hand that he overturned a 
massive logging truck. The next day, the young mahout tried 
pressing against the bull’s swollen temporal gland, trying to 
squeeze out fluid and help relieve some of the pressure. Tippoo 
suddenly lifted his head and sent the mahout fifteen feet through 
the air. Dr. K took over, trying the same gland-squeezing tech- 
nique. Tippoo started to turn on him, and Dr. K couldn’t get 
away in time due to a trick knee crushed earlier by a different el- 
ephant. Whatever might have happened next never did, because 
the old mahout came hurrying over and spoke a single word to 
Tippoo. The giant subsided. 

“That old fellow, he couldn’t stay away from the elephants. 
He was the same way I am: once an elephant man, always an el- 
ephant man. I can’t retire. I will stay with them until death,” Dr. 
K said with a shrug. I was glad he had decided to do that — glad 
for him, as the animals so plainly brought him joy, and glad for 
the opportunity I had to observe elephants through one of the 
most practiced set of eyes in the world. 

Indians distinguish two fundamental types of conformation 
among tame elephants. One is called mirgha , which is Hindi for 
deer, and refers to the animal’s long-legged, comparatively slen- 
der build. Mirghas are the elephant ectomorphs. The other type 
is kumeriah , the endomorph, distinguished by a stout, blocky 
build. The legs and neck may look short next to those of the 
mirgha , but the overall impression is of power and solidity. The 
biggest among the kumeriahs are considered inherently regal. 
They are therefore the ones chosen to carry dignitaries and lead 
religious processions in addition to being preferred for the heavi- 
est hauling. Mirgha elephants are fine for general labor and trans- 
port and sometimes have better overall endurance than the more 
majestic-looking kumeriahs. 

Along with pointing out mirghas , kumeriahs, and intermediate 
forms. Dr. K could identify elephants captured from the wilds 
in southern India. “They have more of a frontal bump on the 



304 The Fate of the Elephant 

head than northern populations," he commented. The only dif- 
ferences among Asian elephants I had been aware of were that 90 
percent of the bulls in southern India carry tusks, whereas only 
about 50 percent of bulls have them in northern India, and just 
$ to 10 percent of the bulls in Sri Lanka are tuskers. Also, Su- 
matran elephants were said to be smaller than average — some- 
what like the now-extinct Javan elephant — but with relatively 
long trunks. I began to wonder how many other distinct varia- 
tions the dwindling wild population of Asian elephants still 
contained. 

The public is used to thinking of extinction in absolute terms: 
either an animal is still here and struggling to carry on, and we 
are absorbed by the drama of trying to save the last few survi- 
vors against eternal oblivion, or it is gone. Unfortunately, long 
before the brink is reached, and usually before the species’s plight 
even starts to attract widespread concern, a substantial portion 
of the genes it carries will already have gone extinct. Sure, there 
are still trumpeter swans and bison around, and sarus crants and 
Bengal tigers. But the diversity they once represented — the 
multitude of races, local variations, and ecotypes that were 
expressions of unique sequences of DNA; the potential inherent 
in the species; the genetic strength and flexibility that would al- 
low the species to weather great changes in the environment; the 
assurance that at least some population within the geographic 
range would turn out to have the right combination of qualities 
to adapt — the majority of those creations have already ceased to 
exist. 

My guess is that some level of homogenization has been tak- 
ing place for millennia in elephants, because captives were 
bought, sold, plundered, and paid as tribute throughout Asia, 
mixing genes from different ends of the continent. For instance, 
the Shahanama, Persia’s equivalent of the epic Mahabharata , men- 
tions two items traded to that Middle East empire from India: 
elephants and swords of Indian steel. While Myanmar (Burma) 
and adjoining Southeast Asian kingdoms shipped elephants of 
their own to India, Sri Lanka was for centuries a source of work- 
ing and ceremonial elephants for northern India and Southeast 
Asia. 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 305 

No one is sure whether the tuskless trait prevalent in Sri Lanka 
today steins from natural genetic isolation of the population on 
that island or from those centuries of selecting big tuskers for 
trade. How about trade combined with heavy hunting by colo- 
nial Portuguese? And the Dutch, who mounted a firestorm in 
their quest for ivory? And, finally, the British, who combined 
avid trophy hunting with shooting crop-raiders to reduce dam- 
age to plantations? 

I can’t help thinking of the ivory-less females and young in 
Amboseli that Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole called the Tuskless 
family. They alone might survive an onslaught of intensive 
poaching and pass along their characteristics. Maybe tuskless- 
ness offers the best chance for both elephant species to survive 
today’s ivory binge. 

Mukna, also spelled mukhna and makhna, is the Hindi term for 
a tuskless male. An elephant used to capture and control wild 
ones is a kumkie , Dr. K informed me. An elephant that rocks in 
place, as many do when tethered, often swinging the free front 
foot across the other one, has a special name as well: nataraj, king 
of the dancers, a reference to Shiva. You can see the pose in any 
one of the thousands of representations of Shiva, who swings 
one leg across the other as he dances to endlessly create and de- 
stroy the universe. Often, he is depicted dancing on a dwarf, 
who represents ignorance. 

After examining the ear of a nataraj elephant for signs of in- 
fection from a recent tear, Dr. K pointed to another elephant and 
said he could see in the fallen arch of its back the results of years 
of carrying tourists. The giants are far better at hauling loads be- 
hind them than on top of them. As a general rule, he said, a horse 
can carry a 10 percent greater load relative to its body weight 
than a human can and an elephant 10 percent less. 

From the swayback elephant, he went on to introduce me to 
Rathi, a cow he described as “the most beautiful elephant in 
camp. Very well built- Rathi is the Hindu equivalent of Aphro- 
dite. She is fifty-eight now and has had ten calves, and 1 wouldn’t 
be surprised if die had another. She .will not accept any camp 
males, only wild tuskers. She won’t always accept them eitV- w 
If one tries to rape her, she grabs his penis, and he rupr 



$o6 Thb Fatb of thb Elbfhant 

squealing. Oh, she is something. I once had a beautiful male el- 
ephant named IG for Inspector General. He was a regular Ro- 
meo, the male version of Rathi. I am telling you, the cows had 
eyes only for him.” 


Dr. K had come to the mahouts’ village camp to minister to a 
male gored by wild bulls while out feeding in the bush. The 
puncture penetrated two feet deep into the animal’s flank. As Dr. 
K worked to drain and clean the hole, the giant lay passively on 
his side, and his mahout sat upon one of the tusks, watching him 
carefully. The only sound the elephant made — in the audible 
spectrum, anyway — was slow and steady breathing combined 
with a deep, gurgling noise, almost like an elephant version of 
purring. I thought I could feel a subsonic component to this 
sound reverberating within me. 

Dr. K commented that this was a noise of contentment. A few 
camp elephants knew him as the man who brought pain and re- 
sisted his approach, he said, but most seemed to be able to make 
the connection between his actions and the eventual relief of 
pain. “Elephants are one of those animals that realize you are 
doing something good to them,” he said. I was to hear almost 
exactly the same words from Dr. Michael Schmidt, chief vet- 
erinarian of the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon. 
“They understand you are trying to help,” Dr. K continued. 
“Even wild elephants seem to realize this when I am treating 
gunshot wounds. The most rewarding experience with the 
camp elephants is that they know me and know what 1 do. Even 
very protective mothers of newborn calves will let me do almost 
anything to the babies.” 

I told him I had read a news report from northern India of a 
wild elephant family seen walking down a road in a refuge sup- 
porting a wounded member between them as they took it to a 
ranger outpost, supposedly for care. Dr. K said he had seen 
plenty of examples of concern and help for injured family mem- 
bers. For two days, he watched a mother and older sister guard 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 307 

a baby hit by a truck on the road. They wouldn’t let any other 
vehicle pass after that and kept trying to lift the baby. The baby 
died. Yet for two more days, the females stayed on to defend the 
carcass. Did Asian elephants pay as much attention to older 
corpses and bones as African elephants seemed to? Dr. K hadn’t 
seen such a well-developed interest in the dead. Come to think 
of it, though, he had seen an elephant dig up human bones from 
a tribal burial ground. “Let me think more on this,” he said. 

As the good doctor dug deep into the pus-filled puncture 
wound and the bull let out a vibrating sigh, I stood back and 
clenched my teeth and, as I did, suddenly realized how extraor- 
dinary each of these beings was in his own way — the bull and the 
veterinarian. 

Fights between wild and tame bulls are not uncommon in the 
Nilgiri Reserve. Being hobbled puts the tame bulls at a serious 
disadvantage. Some return with broken tusks, many more with 
puncture wounds and mangled tails, for when they turn to flee, 
their hobbles keep them from racing away. The victor takes their 
slow departure as a sign of recalcitrance and is likely to tusk 
them and bite their tails. 

Puncture wounds heal slowly, and the animals are prone to 
develop abscesses once the skin heals over. I noticed several an- 
imals whose skin had weltlike bumps all over the shoulders, 
back, and flanks. Dr. K identified the cause as rectal flies, not 
wounds. Related to horseflies and deerflies, these biting mem- 
bers of the tabanid family transmit microfilaria — tiny parasitic 
worms — that make their way toward the host’s top side and 
'form the subcutaneous nodules I noticed. 

Other filarial worms, transmitted by mosquitoes, also cause 
nodules to develop on the elephants. More worrisome to me was 
the fact that they cause fluid swelling in the lymph system of hu- 
mans, leading to the condition known as elephantiasis. I had seen 
several people in the area shuffling about on baggy, saggy, giant 
legs as a result of this disease. A disease that causes fleshy 
growths to develop on the arms and legs of people goes by the 
name of elephant’s ears but is unrelated to anything elephants 
suffer. However, elephants are susceptible to several other dis- 



jo8 The Fats of the Elephant 


cases that human flesh is heir to, including tuberculosis , anthrax, 
and rabies — and, some studies suggest, heart problems due to 
social stress. 

A trypanosome related to the organism that causes sleeping 
sickness in humans afflicts elephants. Whereas African elephants 
host 1 rypanosoma elephant, Asian elephants host Trypanosoma ev- 
enk, and they often get it from domestic cattle via the bites of ta- 
banid flies. The farther cattle encroach upon elephant habitat, the 
more prevalent is the spread of this disease to elephants. 

One camp bull was using a stick to scratch at recent insect 
bites on his forehead as the veterinarian grabbed his tusk and 
pulled it down to show me the heavy fold of skin where the 
ivory inserts through the lip. This is where flies labeled Cohhaldia 
elephanti, in the oestrid family, deposit their eggs. When the lar- 
vae develop, they burrow into the sinuses, then into the stom- 
ach, where they attach to the lining of the gut to absorb food and 
grow. If enough of them develop there, they cause gastritis, and 
the elephant begins to lose condition. * 

To treat this section of the lip, Dr. K applied an oil made of 
camphor, garlic, and gardenia, the combination acting as both a 
repellent and antiseptic. In Kefala, elephants that lose condition 
are given a broth made from meat for a week or so. Occasion- 
ally, the meat is from a goat. More often, it is from a chicken. 
Oddly, while most elephants will ignore a chicken running by, 
those that have consumed broth are liable to kill the bird, he 
noted. In northeastern India, an elephant was found consuming 
a human body. Or so he had heard. 

Asia has its own legends of elephant graveyards, by the way. 
As in Africa, this may have something to do with the scarcity of 
elephant carcasses — and easy-to-get ivory — in the bush. Car- 
casses of these beasts are so large and ought to be so obvious and 
yet are so infrequently found, people assume the giants must go 
somewhere special to die. 

Asians say the giants slowly wend their way to some deep and 
remote valley. No, just to dense streamside cover, said Dr. K. 
They go there when they are hurting so they can be near hiding 
places, food, and water with the least amount of movement. Af- 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 309 

ter they die, wild dogs, hyenas, and, above all, wild boars may 
scatter the smaller remains until only the vultures know where 
to find them. The lush riparian growth covers the rest. 

But the Nilgiri Reserve area is exceptional, in that carcasses do 
get found. Perhaps it is the result of having so many wood* 
cutters, herders, and other people wandering through a pro- 
tected area. Another factor has been Dr. K’s good contacts in the 
local communities, plus the fact that he has been around for so 
long. In any case, he has personally examined more than 350 el- 
ephant carcasses in the bush. 

Nearly a third were victims of poaching or injuries resulting 
from conflicts around fields and villages. Of the remaining 70 
percent, most of the deceased animals were quite old or calves 
under the age of six — a typical natural pattern of mortality 
for large-bodied animals. The greatest single agent of death 
appeared to be gastrointestinal diseases caused by parasites. 
Roundworms, hookworms, and tapeworms, which cause ane- 
mia and hypoproteinemia (reduced protein uptake), and flukes, 
which lead to cirrhosis of the liver, were the chief culprits, 
spread mostly from crowded waterholes. However, what made 
the elephants vulnerable to the effects of parasites and illness in 
the first place was environmental stress — hard times, the diffi- 
culty of making a living. The majority died during the dry 
months between December and May, when forage was the 
scarcest and least nutritious, and it was sometimes a long, long 
hike to water. Historically, drought — the periodic failure of the 
monsoons — probably played a key role in limiting elephant 
numbers on the Indian subcontinent. 

Dr. K said he had veterinarian friends in Kerala who could tell 
me more about both elephant diseases and captive elephants in 
general, and he offered to drive with me to visit them. I accepted 
at once. 1 had planned to have a look at some temple elephants in 
Kerala anyway, but I would have driven anywhere with Dr. K 
for the privilege of having him continue to talk about a lifetime 
among giants. 



jio The Fate of the Elbphant 

On our way from the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve to the city of 
IHchur in Kerala, Dr. Krishnamurthy discoursed not only on el- 
ephants but on nearly everything we passed in between. He 
touched upon sacred cows and cattle diseases, langur monkeys 
and primate psychology, cashew plantations and the strong al- 
cohol brewed locally from these nuts. We screeched to a stop 
where the road crossed over the Karimpazha River. Down the 
broad, muddy waterway was floating one raft of teak logs after 
another, each ridden by a man with a long bamboo pole that he 
used to try and keep the raft clear of the shore around turns. 
Close by, elephants were hauling teak from a riverside planta- 
tion down to the water’s edge to be tied into rafts and sent down- 
stream along with the others. 

Although the monsoon rains had begun, they had not yet bro- 
ken the heat that builds up toward the close of the dry season. At 
this low elevation, they had only made a steam bath out of the 
air and turned the soil to mush. The value of using elephants 
over machinery was once again apparent, for the elephants had 
little impact on the muddy ground compared to the quagmire 
heavy machines would have created. As a result, replanting 
could take place right after harvesting. On the average, sixty to 
eighty years would pass before the new teak trees would reach 
harvestable size. 

In this hot weather, the elephants worked from 7:30 in the 
morning until 12:30, took a break until evening, then put in an- 
other three hours or so. It was nearing noon when we stopped 
by, and I was bathed in sweat just following behind the working 
men and animals with my notebook. Away from the river the 
elephants paused from time to time and sprayed themselves with 
their trunks to cool off a little. Where did the water come from? 
There was none nearby. A common explanation is that the ani- 
mals are able to withdraw water from their voluminous stom- 
achs, but that isn’t what happens. “Both the large sinuses of the 
head and the trunk itself produce secretions of watery mucus,” 
Dr. K informed me. “ Copious secretions. They are stored in the 
trunk. Its capacity is eight to ten liters — about two of your gal- 
lons — and this is what you see sprayed when there is no water 
about.” 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 311 

The hardest-working elephant was a tusker named Vetta- 
karan, meaning Hunter. As he approached dragging a long, 
muddy bundle of logs, the mahouts warned me not to get near 
his right side. This is the side mahouts usually mount from. 
They order the animal to crook its rear leg and use that as a lad- 
der, or use a combination of a crooked front leg and the trunk, 
also bent to serve as a step. But for reasons of his own, Vetta- 
karan would thunk anyone coming from his right. Figuring out 
how to handle this bull had cost the lives of three assistants in the 
last three years. 

“This is a government plantation, but the elephants are from 
private contractors,” observed Dr. K. “Mahouts in the private 
sector are very much involved in this business of making an el- 
ephant a one-man animal that will not let other mahouts handle 
it. You could call it a form of job security. It is a problem to be- 
gin with, one man owning just one elephant. He raises it in iso- 
lation; that elephant is brought up in solitary confinement. It has 
no chance to be a herd animal — a normal, socialized animal. You 
see, it is bound to be a social-psychological misfit.” 

As if to emphasize his point, Vettakaran passed by looking at 
me like I was a stray dog — get near my path, and I’ll knock you 
from here to the river. He was no Ganesh, no god of wisdom 
and success, and certainly no potbellied facilitator concerned 
with my ordinary complaints and frustrations. But he was a god 
to whom I would pray. He was an old-time god, huge and mus- 
cular and seething with wrath. He was the kind you brought of- 
ferings to in the hope that he would relent in his anger or at least 
take it out on somebody or something else. 

Part of the reason Vettakaran had killed helpers instead of ma- 
houts is that on contracted jobs, the helper is often the one who 
rides the elephant while the mahout sleeps under a tree or has a 
long smoke break. When the helper has problems governing the 
beast, then the mahout takes charge again. The helper might or 
might not be in one piece by then. 

“In the private sector,” said Dr. K, “we have no regular pro- 
gram to see that the animals are well cared for. Owners call in 
the veterinarian only after they have exhausted all their home 
remedies and prayers. No one wants to spend the money if he 



312 The Fate of the Elephant 

doesn’t have to. But my god,” he sighed, fanning himself in the 
midday steam, “sometimes the elephant hasn’t crapped in 
twenty or thirty days by the time I get there. I have to remove a 
turd of dry fiber in two-foot-by-three-foot blocks. You get that 
sort of thing as a result of the elephant being marched fifty ki- 
lometers with no water in the heat. A month after the march, 
they kick the bucket, and the owner hasn’t a clue why.” 

Kick the bucket? Grinning away with his curious tusks, the 
good doctor admitted that he was a long-tirhe fan of Zane Grey 
and Louis LAmour western novels. I was beginning to wonder. 
I would hear a phrase such as “That sonofabitch is plumb loco” 
and have to turn around to convince myself that the speaker was 
really this bald, bright-eyed Brahmin with a tika of vivid orange 
and red pigments painted on his forehead. 

Not far downstream, we saw the other end of the logging se- 
quence. Elephants lumbered down a steep embankment to rafts 
along the shore and hauled the logs back up to be stacked in a 
lumber-mill yard, awaiting the saws. One of the elephants at the 
yard was a cow called Sarasu. Her owner, a Muslim named P. 
Mohammed, said she was forty-five years old. Dr. K whispered 
that Sarasu was at least fifty, pointing to the markedly sunken 
temples and a strong folding over of the tops of the ears. The ear 
edge begins to fold at age fifteen to twenty. By age thirty to 
thirty-five, it has a one-inch fold; by age forty to forty-five, a 
two-inch fold. And over age fifty, the top of the ear shows the 
type of wide, loose curl Sarasu had. But P. Mohammed might 
get a lower daily rate for his elephant if her true age were known. 

Sarasu was struggling hard to heave logs up what was almost 
a forty-degree slope. She would tug on the rope held in her 
teeth, pause to gather her strength along with better footing, and 
heave again with a mighty lunge of her neck, letting the rope 
press against her shoulder to help take some of the strain. Dr. K 
told me that teak weighs 56 pounds per cubic foot. A typical log 
consists of between so and 100 cubic feet of wood, or roughly 1 
to 3 tons, and more when waterlogged. A good working ele- 
phant drags something like 1000 cubic meters of logs in a year. 
At 1800 pounds per cubic meter, that’s getting close to 2 million 
pounds. 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 313 

While the ample-bellied P. Mohammed stood t alking in his 
clean, white robe, Sarasu continued her contest against gravity, 
urged on by both the mahout atop her neck and a helper at her 
flank. I asked Dr. K if he wouldn’t mind translating what the 
mahout was saying to Sarasu. “But of course,” he replied. “He 
is saying, ’Sarasu, the man is taking photos! Can’t you pull this 
log properly? Have you no manners? Can’t you lift anything? 
What a lazy girl you are. Dear God, what a lazy bitch. Aren’t 
you ashamed?’ ” 

Yet it was all meant lightly. The mahout was very gentle com- 
pared to the one who rode the bull Vettakaran. That handler 
wore a grim, macho, I-am-the-mahout-of-the-elephant-who- 
has-killed-many-men expression and used the ankus hard. Sa- 
rasu’s handlers had only a thin cherya hole and a switch. She 
required, and could endure, little else. Her limitations were 
taken into account, and I felt none of the tension and fear, none 
of the potential for detonation, that was so often part of the at- 
mosphere around big bulls. Here, it was just slow, hard work 
with a pleasant beast. I felt immediately comfortable around her. 
No one needed to warn me about where I should or should not 
go in her presence. Any place was fine. 

When I heard the thwack of the cherya hole, I looked up in sur- 
prise from watching Sarasu ’s feet on the slippery slope. The 
unfamiliarity of the sound made me realize that for the past 
three-quarters of an hour of labor, the mahout had not touched 
her with anything but his feet and words. Sarasu heaved the log 
to the top of the bank and proceeded to haul it over level terrain 
toward a stack of logs. There, she dropped it roughly in place, 
then knelt on one foreleg and shoved it exactly parallel to the 
others with the front of her trunk. Filially, she swung her trunk 
sideways to tamp the end even with the others. The log proved 
slightly too heavy for fine adjustment with the trunk alone, so 
she brought a foreleg up behind her trunk for support and fi- 
nessed the log precisely into place. 

“I need to make 500 rupees a day to break even, keeping in 
mind what I must pay the mahouts juid food for the elephant,” 
P. Mohammed was saying. “I am barely getting 250 rupees a day 
here. I do this at a loss, but it is better than being idle and just 



3U Thb Fatb of thb Elephant 

spending money to keep the elephant fed.” Dr. K did a quick cal- 
culation of the number of logs Sarasu would drag up from die 
river in a day, and the price paid the owner per cubic meter, and 
decided that Mr. P. Mohammed was fibbing again. He was 
making money with this sweet older lady of an elephant. Dr. K 
thought he ought to invest some of it in bigger rations for Sa- 
rasu. Her hip and shoulder bones were a little too prominent, 
and her back seemed broken down. But on the positive side, a 
sort of working vacation waited on the horizon. 

‘Tor one more month, I will work Sarasu here logging. 
Then,” P. Mohammed said, folding his hands as if in prayer, ”1 
go with her to the temple. We will perform religious processions 
and marriage processions. People will feed Sarasu rice, banana, 
coconut, jaggery, many good things as she passes. The people 
wish to feed Ganesh. For luck. They also give tips to the 
mahout.” 


In Trichur, the cultural center of Kerala, a man could make as 
much money renting an elephant for festivals as hiring it out for 
logging. Most owners, like P. Mohammed, did both, walking 
their animal from the logging sites to the city in time for holi- 
days and religious festivals, which Kerala has in splendid pro- 
fusion. 

Long before Ganesh worship grew popular, Hinduism still 
had a special place for elephants among animals, believing them 
to have been created by Brahma with wings and a beautiful 
ivory-white color. Much the same legend of flying white ele- 
phants, usually with an affinity for clouds and rain, can be heard 
across Asia with local variations. Hinayana Buddhism replaced 
Hinduism as the primary religion for several centuries, until 
about a.d. 400. According to its teachings, Buddha’s image 
should never be shown directly, only by symbols: the dome 
called a stupa, a footprint, a tree, or an elephant. Mahayana Bud- 
dhism supplanted the Hinayana school, but the elephant re- 
mained an important symbol. As everyone knew, a white 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 315 

elephant had entered the side of Queen Sirimahamaya as she lay 
dreaming. Later, she gave birth to Prince Siddhartha, the future 
Gautama Buddha. By implication, Buddha was a white elephant 
in his earlier incarnations, and the elephant was a Buddha-to-be. 

Buddhism was largely replaced by a resurgence of Hinduism 
later on. The aposde Thomas is said to have visited Kerala in 
a.d. 52 and seeded Christianity here. The Catholic churches 
used to hire elephants for processions every so often, having 
adopted this most impressive feature of traditional Hindu festi- 
vals. They were told by Rome to quit, but Kerala’s Orthodox 
churches still use elephants in their parades. The Muslim religion 
was established during the seventh and eighth centuries as the 
Arab presence grew along the Malabar Coast. The mosques of 
Trichur also hire elephants now and then. In the meantime, 
Hindu festivals, ceremonies, and holidays continue to take up a 
substantial part of the calendar year. 

Endowed with good ports, rich soils, lush vegetation, and 
ample rains, Kerala supports one of India’s densest human pop- 
ulations. Its natural wealth and trade connections have allowed 
this state to maintain an enviable standard of living despite the 
crowding. Kerala now has the highest literacy rate in the nation, 
some of the best family planning, and one of the lowest birth 
rates. Business was flourishing during my stay there. Trade ven- 
tures between Muslims in Kerala and the Arab states were doing 
particularly well. Also, Indians regularly shipped out from Ke- 
rala to work as laborers for a while in the Gulf region and re- 
turned with cash in their pockets. So there was a lot of new 
money floating around. More money meant a rising demand for 
status symbols, and on? of the most prestigious of all was the 
sponsoring of an elephant. 

The practice of individuals or families arranging for the pres- 
ence of an elephant in a public procession is an ancient one. As 
always, people who can afford it want the biggest, tallest kume~ 
riah available to represent them. Sponsors even compete to see 
who can spend the most. Every so often, a well-to-do person 
may buy an elephant outright and doqate it to a temple, lo gain 
. merit in the eyes of the community. To atone for a great sin. Or 



3i6 Thb Fate of the Elephant 


to make good on a promise made in prayer. And sometimes just 
out of the goodness of a heart. Virtually every major Hindu 
temple in Kerala housed at least an elephant or two. 

Side by side with the veneration of elephants went the selling 
of ivory jewelry and sculptures. Shops sold gods’ teeth all 
through the city. As ever, one of the favorite subjects of ivory 
carvers was elephants — majestic bulls or strings of females and 
young. A vigorous cottage industry had developed around carv- 
ing elephants, rhinos, tigers, and the like from teak, rosewood, 
and imported ebony, partly because ivory was becoming so 
scarce and expensive. In 1986, a large tusk sold in Kerala for 1000 
to 1500 rupees a kilogram. Now, the price was 2500. Two years 
earlier, the selling of a pair of 45-kilo tusks for the price of an 
elephant made news. At the time of my visit, such tusks would 
have been worth a good deal more than the animal itself. 


Near the center of the city, I was shown to the home of K. N. 
Venkatadri, nicknamed Raju. His business card read “Elephant 
and Decoration Contractor.” He is a caparisoner and broker of 
giants. When people want to hire an elephant to represent them 
at a festival, or for a marriage ceremony or an inauguration of 
dignitaries, for filmmaking, or just for a party, they go to Raju. 
He will find the elephant in their price range from his list of an- 
imals and owners throughout the area. Clients count on him to 
make all the arrangements for the elephant to be present when 
and where needed, complete with mahout and assistant. Raju 
takes a modest commission for his efforts, of course. Then, if 
the client wishes, he will also dress the elephant, and for a rea- 
sonable fee. 

The traditional costuming of an elephant Kerala-style was 
something I wanted badly to see. But we were in between major 
festivals, and no one happened to have requisitioned an elephant 
for any other function lately. There was only one thing to do. 
Photographer Bill Thompson and I hired our own elephant to be 
dressed up and paraded through the streets. Extravagant, but it 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 317 

was a way to compensate Raju for opening his home and work- 
place to us and for the days he spent explaining the details of his 
operation. And his good will opened other doors to us down the 
line. 

Raju’s household included his wife and two children; his 
mother, Parvati; and his father, K. V. Narayan, who had inher- 
ited the business from his own father and recently turned it over 
to Raju. During the day, the household was joined by a host of 
workmen, who occupied a warren of sheds and tables in the rear 
courtyard. Several tapped out ornaments from copper all day, 
mainly half-spheres, or domes, from the size of grapes to grape- 
fruit. Others electroplated them with gold in a little tub, where 
two wire leads from a bank of batteries dangled into a chemical 
bath. Still others sewed the dazzling metal pieces onto silk and 
velvet. Further adorned by richly colored brocades, one sheet of 
the resplendent fabric would become a hood shaped to fit down 
over the elephant’s broad forehead. Larger sheets would lie 
across its back and down the sides like a colossal cape. 

But this was only the beginning. Upstairs, Raju showed me 
the room where he stored accessories. First, he picked up har- 
nesses of bells and shook them. Some would be strapped around 
the animal’s neck, others around each foot. The wearing of bells 
is both ornamental and a requirement for traveling in traffic, like 
having a horn on your car. The idea is for blind people in a fes- 
tival crowd always to be able to tell where the elephant is. When 
he turned around the next time, Raju was waving fans made 
of peacock feathers. Then chamaras, silver-handled pom-poms 
made of yak hair from Nepal. Next, tall, silken parasols 
trimmed with silver thread. And shields as high as a person, 
blazing with more silver and gold. 

To handle all the accessories would take a multi-armed Hindu 
god. Instead, three, four, even five men ride the elephant. The 
man in the lead plants the shining shield before him and begins 
to rhythmically raise and lower it. Behind him, the others wave 
the fans and pom-poms and open and close the parasol. As our 
hired elephant paraded through the streets of Trichur, I was fast 
in the grip of two mental states involving elephants. One was 



3i8 The Fate op the Elephant 

anakambam , a fascination and love; Raju taught me the word. 
The other was ananranth, a mania, but a good one, in the sense 
of a fine madness. I ran down a street to view our bespangled 
creature head-on and realized that the overall effect of the men 
atop it was, indeed, that of a multi-armed Hindu god. 

That was more or less the idea, Raju agreed. Following de- 
signs from long-vanished empires, the caparison transforms the 
elephant into a moving temple — the house of the god — and the 
riders become a representation of the deity itself, with fans to 
cool it and a parasol to shade it. Flowers and rice thrown by the 
crowd as it passes add to the elephant's adornments. Some ele- 
phants sway and flap their ears and trumpet in response to the 
music, adding to the display. “At a festival, there are no caste dif- 
ferentiations," said Raju. “This is especially true in Kerala and 
especially with elephant functions. All are equal. All are equal in 
front of the elephants.” 

I asked my imagination to help me see scores of them now in 
full panoply, rumbling through the streets and gathering to be 
arrayed in rows before the entryway to a temple. Envision the 
fabric and metal being thicker, with spears and bows projecting 
behind the shields, and you could conjure up the spectacle cre- 
ated by ranks of war elephants preparing for battle. Imagine the 
workers kept busy making and mending armor and other trap- 
pings in the days when emperors and maharajahs kept elephant 
corps in the many hundreds. 

Different-size caparisons have to be made for different ani- 
mals. A few wealthy Kerala citizens buy the whole outfit for 
30,000 to 35,000 rupees. But most rent them; after all, they have 
to pay for renting the elephant too. A run-of-the-mill elephant 
might cost 2000 rupees for the festival day (the price includes 
two days on either side to march the animal from wherever it is 
being kept). But if the animal is a truly impressive tusker, the 
owner could get as much as 12,000 rupees (close to U.S. $1000). 
Three such festivals per year, and the owner will have paid for 
the annual upkeep of his elephant, which at the time of my visit 
was running between 32,000 and 40,000 rupees, including the 
handlers' wages; anything beyond that was profit. 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 319 

Given the fees a ceremonial bull could command, coupled 
with the decline in logging work as forests continued to shrink, 
the competition among owners to rent out their animals for spe- 
cial occasions was intense. People bad-mouthed other owners 
and their animals. They even bribed other mahouts not to take a 
particular owner’s elephants to a festival. 

Some owners were tempted into renting out animals on the 
edge of musth or even in actual musth. Opium and marijuana 
could be used to mask the condition, much as temple elephants 
were sometimes kept drugged to make them more tractable — "a 
substitute for good training,” Dr. K called it. Whiskey worked 
to slow down a musth animal, too, once it came off the high and 
slid into the hangover, turning dull and sluggish. Naturally, an 
owner didn’t want to give his elephant a few belts of high-octane 
arak and send it right off to a parade. On the other hand, he 
might slip a competitor’s elephant a few drinks just before a per- 
formance to cause problems and ruin his reputation. There was 
too much of that sort of sabotage going on, Raju noted. 

All of which helped explain why a kit containing tranquiliz- 
ing drugs and darts lay on the desk of Dr. Jacob Cheeran, to 
whom Dr. K introduced me one morning. Dr. Cheeran had to 
be ready to go at a moment’s notice. In the past several years, this 
senior scientist at Trichur’s College of Veterinary and Animal 
Sciences had answered 153 emergency calls involving elephants 
out of control. 

‘‘No females,” he told me. “Not one, because they can usu- 
ally be dealt with some other way. Females can be exceedingly 
stubborn, I grant you, but they rarely go amok. Tuskers cause 
the trouble. One ran amok at a festival and killed somebody just 
last week. It broke into a theater compound and tore up every- 
thing, including a person.” 

Dr. Cheeran’s task is basically the same as Dr. K’s when called 
to a disturbance, calm the animal with chemicals enough to re- 
strain it but not to knock it out. Too bulky to be lifted and carried 
off, the berserker must be led away with tame elephants and 
taken somewhere safe to be tethered. The main problem can be 
the festival crowd itself, with people running in all directions. 



320 The Fate of the Elephant 

getting in the path of the animal and of those trying to control 
it. Everyone seems to think that the drug is going to put the bull 
to sleep within seconds after it is shot. Dr. Cheeran complained. 
In reality, at least five to seven minutes are needed for the tran- 
quilizer to seep through enough of the massive body to begin 
working. That gives people plenty of time to crowd in close and 
get in trouble all over again. 

A less pressing problem is that the elephant’s penis goes loose 
under the influence of the drugs. Faced with an exceptional or- 
gan dragging on the ground so far that the bull is likely to step 
on it, the veterinarian may have to rig up a penis sling to get the 
stupefied animal home. 

Sometimes a cranky elephant simply gathers up all its chains 
and ropes, its fetters and traces, and piles them in a heap in front 
of itself, refusing to let anyone near. It goes on strike. Then there 
are the cases of bulls suddenly running amok with mahouts still 
on their backs. The handler hardly wants to stay where he is. 
And yet he may be stuck there all night, for he dares not jump 
down either; if he didn’t hurt himself, the bull would do it for 
him once he hit the ground. In fact, a musth elephant will often 
ignore women, children, and th€ crowd in general to chase only 
the mahout who did something to spark its rage. When it can’t 
get at the mahout, it may continue ignoring other people and re- 
direct its fury toward trees, cars, temples — any inanimate object 
close at hand. 

A fascinating piece of elephant psychology is that while a 
giant might try to shake a rider loose, rub him off against a tree, 
or even catch his legs in the crease between the neck and shoulder 
and then rub him off, it will not reach back with its trunk and 
pull the rider loose. Such a behavioral gap seems doubly odd, be- 
cause an elephant will reach back to exactly that spot on com- 
mand to deliver the rider’s ankus, a rope, his lunch — anything 
the mahout requests. 

For whatever reasons, an elephant just does not use its trunk 
to grab people atop it — nor atop other elephants, it seems. This 
quirk is what made it possible for mahouts to chase down wild 
elephants with tame ones in the first place. The wild elephant 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 321 

might fight with its elephant pursuer but not with the man 
astride it. In fact, a mahout could ride his mount into a keddah 
full of newly captured wild elephants to sort them out and be 
fairly certain that he would never be touched unless he fell off 
during a fracas. 

Besides the pit and keddah, Indians employed another capture 
method, one that might not have been feasible without the ele- 
phant’s strange avoidance of, or inattention to, forms on the 
backs of other elephants. The technique was directed toward 
catching big bulls and was necessary because tuskers were so sel- 
dom taken in keddah drives, due to their largely solitary habits. 
One or more mahouts mounted on the backs of female elephants 
and hidden beneath dark cloaks would locate a bull and keep him 
awake through close contact for two or three days on end. The 
mahouts might work in shifts to avoid falling asleep, sometimes 
bringing in new females to pique the male’s flagging interest. Fi- 
nally, too tired to respond any longer, the bull would doze, usu- 
ally standing up. A mahout would ease off his mount’s back and 
carefully tie the male’s legs, then slip a heavy rope or cable 
around his neck. They say that upon awakening to find them- 
selves bound, bulls often died in a raging struggle to free them- 
selves. Otherwise, the men waited until the bull exhausted itself, 
then led it away or camped right at the capture site to begin the 
taming process. 

Dr. Cheeran had killed only four out-of-control animals in 
the last decade, partly because to destroy a tusker is to wipe out 
an investment of 100,000 to 200,000 rupees, and partly because 
even the crowds at risk wouldn’t stand for routine killings of 
problem elephants. Once, however, when the veterinarian was 
called in to dart an elephant that had kiHed a forest officer, he 
found the other officers so upset that they insisted upon shooting 
the animal. “This elephant had already killed thirteen people and 
was looking for number fourteen, so I did not try hard to talk 
them out of it,’’ he said. “Soon, I wished I had. They all stood 
there and shot at the poor beast with various weapons but didn’t 
know where to hit it. They fired more than a hundred rounds 
before it collapsed.” 



322 The Fatb of the Elephant 


*T saw police once shoot sixty-four rounds into an elephant, 
and it was still running around/' Dr. K contributed. “I believe 
it finally died of sheer disgust.” 


On the twenty-fifth of September, the daily paper reported lions 
killing villagers and livestock in India’s Gir Forest. People there 
were too terrified to go to work in the fields. I had lots of time 
to peruse the paper because I was down with seriously loose 
bowels, most likely from a dose of unfamiliar bacteria or pro- 
tozoans, but possibly from nothing more than a diet of unre- 
lentingly spicy southern Indian food. 

To cheer myself up, I went to Trichur’s circus. For about U.S. 
$1.30, I saw so many death-defying acts, interspersed with tri- 
cycling elephants and motorcycling Himalayan black bears, that 
I lost count. The name of this greatest show — for the money — 
on earth was, of course, Jumbo Circus. Its spectacular craziness 
was apparently just what I needed, for my stomach and bowels 
felt well enough by the next morning for me to get excited about 
being a reporter again. 1 


Dr. Cheeran introduced me to two of his colleagues: Dr. K. C. 
Panicker, also a professor at Trichur’s veterinary college, and Dr. 
Radrhakrishnan Kaimal, the college’s dean. Together with Dr. 
Krishnamurthy, these elephant doctors took me to one of the 
main religious sites in the area, the Guruvayar Temple complex. 
Within its walls lived forty-two elephants, enough that the tem- 
ple briefly experimented with generating power from methane 
gas produced by elephant dung. The temple elephants were 
mainly males and cared for by 109 mahouts and assistants — two 
men each for the majority of elephants, three for the most mag- 
nificent tuskers. There, among one of the finest collections of 
big bulls in the nation, the veterinarians described the details of 
this still somewhat mysterious condition called musth as it oc- 
curs in the Asian elephant. 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 323 

First comes the premusth period, which lasts from seven to 
fifteen days. With his testosterone starting to shoot up to as 
much as sixty times the normal level — Dr. Panicker discovered 
that the testes enlarge to two or three times their normal size in 
the process — the bull begins to exhibit a restlessness that at first 
may be detectable only by his handlers. During this phase, the 
bull begins to rub his temples with the tip of his trunk. Next, a 
noticeable swelling appears at the base of the penis. Soon, there 
may be signs of disobedience to go with the restlessness — we 
walked by a musth male dragging broken leg chains — and the 
bull frequently masturbates. 

Full musth follows and may last for two to three months, de- 
pending upon the condition of the bull; the healthier, the longer, 
as a rule. Now the temporal gland is fully engorged and leaking 
fluid. Ajay Desai, the elephant behavior researcher in the Nilgiri 
Reserve, tried putting out musth secretions in the forest to test 
the reactions of elephants of different ages and both sexes. 
Young males tried to avoid the area once they smelled the scent. 
Old males beyond breeding age ignored it. Cow elephants 
showed some signs of excitement. 

The penis of the musth male is also engorged, protruding, 
and dribbling urine. The animal is in behavioral hyperdrive, his 
restlessness consuming him. In a natural setting, this might spur 
a male to herculean feats of travel and battle and vastly increase 
his chances of finding and mating a receptive female. But in cap- 
tivity, he becomes a monumental challenge to control. 

The classic bull in full musth is crazy-eyed, rocking and tug- 
ging at the chains that entrap him, hurling sticks, food scraps, 
and feces at anyone who draws near, obeying little or not at all, 
looking as if he is about to implode. Wei) fed and idle most of 
the day, temple elephants come into musth much more strongly 
than elephants worn down by work and meager rations. We 
found a perfect example at Guruvayar, a real hunk of chained 
fury. He, too, had broken hobble chains dangling on his legs. He 
had also broken a longer chain used as a tether. Whenever some- 
one ventured near, he would reach down to grab the chain with 
his trunk and whip the free end at the intruder, or else grab a 
palm frond and hurl it instead. The rest of the time he placed his 



324 The Fate of the Elbphant 

trunk tip in his mouth to hold it and nodded his head so that the 
meaty part of the trunk bounced up and down like rubber. Stark 
raving musth. 

Finally, full musth is replaced by a postmusth period of up to 
fifteen days. The temporal gland regresses, its flow dwindles, the 
penis relaxes, and urination becomes more regular. The giant 
begins to respond to commands again, able to concentrate on 
something other than invisible chemical forces shouting in his 
blood and brain. 

One of the odd things about musth, the veterinarians agreed, 
is that while it may make one bull enraged, another bull may ap- 
pear to grow sleepy under its influence. And the same bull may 
act quite differently from one musth period to the next. 

A healthy male elephant should be in musth at least once every 
year between the ages of fifteen to eighteen and age fifty. At 
three months per musth period — not counting the onset and lat- 
ter stages — that’s eight-and-a-half years of hormone intoxica- 
tion. Eight-and-a-half years of juggling dynamite, for people 
trying to work with the animal. The two peak periods of musth 
seem to be summer (May-September) and winter (November- 
March), with up to 80 percent'of the bulls in Kerala coming into 
musth during winter — which happens to be the height of the 
festival season. 

The Trichur veterinarians keep in regular contact with col- 
league Michael Schmidt of Portland’s Washington Park Zoo, 
and he has suggested castration as a solution to the intermina- 
ble problem of controlling musth males. However, traditional 
ayurvedic medicine holds that seminal fluid is one of the vital 
humors of the body, produced by every organ. It is part and par- 
cel of life in Hindu philosophy. Lord Siva himself is conceived 
of as an infinitely large lingham, or penis. 

Castration for elephants would be hard to sell in Kerala. On 
the other hand, the veterinarians are looking seriously into an- 
other option proposed by Schmidt. He will supply them with 
androgen, a chemical that can reduce the output of testosterone, 
and they will experiment with different dosages on various 
males to see if they can lower the intensity of musth or perhaps 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuaky 32$ 

suppress it altogether. Cultural opposition to this approach may 
arise as well, though, if it is ever put into widespread use. 

One of the bulls at the Guruvayar compound had a broken 
tusk and was named, of course, Ganesh. Another had distinct 
grooves in its tusks; such an animal is known locally as a four- 
tusker. Bulls with four actual tusks have been reported from the 
wild. Closest to the temple on the grounds of Guruvayar were 
the grandest kumeriah elephants. An especially desirable trait is 
that the animal carry its head high — proudly, as humans see it. 
Ideally, the bumps on its cranium would be on a level with the 
top of the arch of its back. An elephant that has the stocky ku- 
meriah build but carries its head in a droopy fashion is not valued 
nearly so highly. 

Perhaps the strangest thing I learned that day at the temple 
was that if you measure the circumference of an Asian elephant’s 
front foot and double it, you get the height of the elephant at the 
shoulder. The foot looks so inconsequential compared to the 
towering back of the giant that 1 guess this comes under the 
heading of Amazing But True Facts. Unlike a lot of such facts, 
this one seemed quite useful. After trying out the formula with 
an assortment of animals to confirm it, I could see how I might 
use it to better guess the approximate age of animals I was track- 
ing in the bush. 

Bathing time arrived, and most of the forty-two elephants 
were taken to a large, walled pool within the temple grounds to 
be scrubbed down with coconut husks. From a distance, the 
scene was of great indolent gods at a bath house, spouting and 
rolling and lolling about while being laved by human slaves. 
These elephants did live a pampered life in some respects. Each 
day, the temple provided 17,775 pounds of food for them. The 
staple was Caryota aureus, commonly called palmira, or toddy 
palm, richest in starch of the local palms. The bull Lakshmanan, 
heaviest of the temple elephants at 11,550 pounds, ate 61 $ 
pounds of palm per day. Rations often included , the nutritious 
treat of coconut meat as well. A fat life, but not a free one. Nor 
was it free from cruelty. 

The veterinarians had brought me to the temple in part so 



3 36 The Fate of the Elephant 

they could check up on the animals’ condition. As it turned out, 
one needed their attention badly. Some fool of a mahout had 
been prodding its front ankle, or wrist, with a pointed valia hole 
until it became inflamed. It went on to develop an abscess. If the 
infection spread laterally through the wrist, the beast could be 
crippled. While an elephant can hobble about with an injured 
hind leg, a ruined foreleg renders it all but immobile. Should 
that happen, this giant would have to be put down. 

After the mahout ordered the elephant ofcto its side and sat on 
its upper tusk, the doctors set about lancing and draining the ul- 
cerated area, cleaning out gobbets of dead tissue. Marveling 
once again at how tolerant a huge male could be, I contemplated 
the profound difference between this and the state of musth. 
Outside of musth, no elephant needed to be hurt in order to be 
made to obey. It only needed to understand; that much seemed 
clear. If someone did hurt the animal, the pain was stored away 
in memory and could be returned a hundredfold any time. 

“If a mahout is cruel, one day, sooner or later, perhaps a de- 
cade or more may pass, the elephant will try to kill him,” Dr. 
Panicker stated. “Especially, of course, in the time of musth. I 
have seen an elephant tear a nfahout’s carcass to pieces for re- 
venge. An elephant may also develop a hatred for the helper, the 
man who ties and binds.” 

In Amboseli, Joyce Poole had told me she thought musth in- 
creased aggression to the point that males were driven to assert 
dominance far beyond their normal rank. She had recorded 
young herd bulls in musth suddenly taking on older, more es- 
tablished bulls in battle and could see how this might ultimately 
improve the musth animal’s chances of breeding with a receptive 
female. Maybe attacks by captive bulls on mahouts during 
musth are a somewhat parallel behavior, I reflected, insofar as 
the mahout is normally the dominant animal in the relationship. 

“But then I have seen an elephant guard the carcass of a ma- 
hout that it killed on purpose or by accident and refuse food or 
drink for two days, as if it were grieving,” Dr. Panicker ob- 
served. A Greek ambassador to ancient India, Megasthenes, 
wrote of similar behavior in his fourth century b.c. account: 
“Some of them have been known, when their drivers have been 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 327 

killed in battle, to have lifted them up and carried them to burial. 
Others have stood over them and protected them. . . . One, in- 
deed, who in a passion slew his driver, died from remorse and 

grief” 

“Some of the feelings of this animal are obviously impor- 
tant,” Dr. Panicker continued, “and complicated. And this is 
why I say that mistreatment of elephants at private camps and 
dwellings and even temples is one of our most serious problems. 
You can’t imagine how often we see these infected legs, feet de- 
formed with welts, and similar signs of abuse. But it is almost 
worse to see the cases of psychological trauma that we do among 
elephants.” 

Daphne Sheldrick had used that phrase — psychological 
trauma — to describe the elephant babies brought to her animal 
orphanage on the outskirts of Nairobi. These were infants that 
had seen the rest of their families mowed down by poachers. I 
remembered how she spoke of them having terrible nightmares 
and waking up at night screaming. 

P. G. Menon of Kerala wrote me a letter with the following 
tale: “My matrilineal family have kept elephants . . . from time 
out of mind. . . . Once, when my grandfather had come court- 
ing, he was unexpectedly knocked down from the back by a 
playful baby elephant which had the run of the front yard; it had 
become accustomed to him and was no longer shy of him. But 
my grandfather had not grown up with elephants. So he scolded 
it angrily. It began to bawl and shed copious tears. It needed so 
much consoling that my grandparents could both recall the in- 
cident vividly forty years later.” 

Dr. Cheeran had commonly seen evidence of elephants 
crying. He told me of watching a mahout beat a tusker until 
even that enormous bull cried. He also knew of a tusker that ran 
away, and when his mahout of twenty years found him and 
hugged his trunk, the mahout began to cry, and so did the ele- 
phant. Science admits that an elephant can definitely leak tears; 
yet some would say that it is a reaction to stress rather than sad- 
ness. I wonder exactly what the difference is, in either humans 
or elephants. 

In Kerala, people may work to remedy the maltreatment of 



jal The Fate op the Elbphant 


elephants by joining the Elephant Welfare Association. Its char- 
ter members include Dr. Panicker, Dr. Kaimal, and Raju. They 
advocate proper treatment of elephants and comprehensive 
health insurance policies for them to encourage better medical 
care. They also want to cultivate more trees, especially palm, to 
ensure a good forage supply. Their overriding goal is to main- 
tain the traditional roles of elephants in Keralan culture. All 
things considered, their prospects look good. Thanks to the 
prospering economy, Kerala is one of very few places in the 
world where domestic elephants are more in demand than ever, 
at least for ceremonial purposes. 


Logging is a different story. On the way out of Trichur, headed 
for the ancient port of Cochin, I stopped when I spied a tusker 
at the C. V. Devassy & Co. lumber yard. The focal point of the 
operation was the sawmill, a nineteenth-century affair of whirl- 
ing pulleys, worn belts, bands of steel teeth, flying sparks, and 
plumes of sawdust — with workers, customers, and curious on- 
lookers wandering hither and yon inches away from sudden 
reincarnation. A forty-year-old bull worked in the yard as an all- 
purpose fork lift and tractor, sorting through the timber piles 
and hauling in one log at a time to be sliced apart. After all the 
emphasis on difficult bulls, it was comforting to be around one 
that paid almost no attention to bystanders, except when they 
came forward to offer him bananas. 

The big male was surprisingly acrobatic, climbing up, down, 
and around on heaps of precariously stacked logs like a four-ton 
goat, occasionally using his trunk like a walking stick for extra 
support. Dr. Cheeran had told me that elephants were naturally 
more limber than people assumed. He had timed them racing 
along at twenty-eight miles per hour in short spurts. They could 
maintain a pace of twenty-four or twenty-five miles per hour for 
longer intervals. Although the popular notion is that elephants 
lack enough spring in their columnar legs to jump, he said ele- 
phants could leap a moat or ditch with a running start. 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 329 

I had heard that they would not descend a truly precipitous 
slope, and if they absolutely had to do it, they climbed down 
backward. I had even heard stories of Asian poachers taking 
advantage of this by planting sharpened stakes to pierce the 
animals* feet along the steepest part of a jungle path. But 
Dr. Cheeran and others insisted that elephants faced with a 
sharp descent would slide down forward while sitting on their 
rumps. 

I was also impressed with the way this bull proceeded through 
most of his routine — from restacking logs after pulling out the 
desired one to placing the log inside the sawmill with the end 
tamped exactly in line with the conveyor — with scarcely any 
guiding by the mahout. Here was a thoughtful, nimble bull- 
dozer, operating in a cramped, 1.2-acre yard where no gas- 
guzzling machine could get around half as efficiently. And yet 
the only reason the giant was still employed was that most of the 
logs in that yard, like most of the logs in Kerala these days, came 
from outside India. 

Overseer C. D. Joseph, an Indian with a Christian name, 
pointed out teak from Burma, mahogany from the Malaysian 
portion of the island of Borneo, and a species called vitex from 
Papua New Guinea. That was a cross-section of the world’s rain- 
forests the bull was climbing on out there in the yard. In the case 
of Burma and Borneo, they were trees from fast-disappearing 
elephant habitat. 

“All is importing now,” grumbled C. D. Joseph. “From all 
the ports, the wood is coming. Our own state cut too much 
without planning. We can no longer meet the demand with trees 
from our own forests. Before, we paid a 50 percent import duty 
on foreign logs. Now it has been changed to 1 5 percent, as we 
need the wood so badly. But the duty still hurts. What to do? En- 
croachments on the forest reduce our timber base steadily. The 
loggers encroach, and the squatters and firewood cutters en- 
croach, and it is only getting worse.” 

I intended to get to some of those other places in Southeast 
Asia where the forests were being stripped. First, I had to detour 
through Lausanne, Switzerland, to a meeting of CITES that 



330 Thb Fatb or thb Elephant 


would determine the future of international trade in ivory. My 
touch-off point was Delhi. 


The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that things tend to- 
ward chaos. But then what? Downtown Delhi at rush hour. It is 
beyond the Second Law. Beyond physics. I was nearing the edge 
of Delhi in a hired car when I passed two hull elephants painted 
from head to toe, trotting between eighteen-wheeled trucks 
down one lane of a five-lane freeway, bound to who knows 
where. Once in the city, I finally found a street not choked with 
vehicles. It was blocked instead by a demonstration. A humane 
organization was trying to rouse public support for animal 
rights. The speaker called for a return to the Indian values of 
kindness and concern for other beings — a strengthening of 
ahimsa. Behold the elephant, she cried. Mightiest of all and yet a 
vegetarian. » 

Two days later, another group of demonstrators took to the 
streets to protest the awful behavior of people toward other 
people, referring mostly to the growing violence and unrest 
plaguing Delhi in recent months. Bombs had been going off in 
the city, killing and wounding innocents. Animals are not so 
heedless and ruinous of their own kind, said this day’s demon- 
strators; let us be more fair. 

India would have little wildlife if its people did not take the 
concept of ahimsa very seriously, which is a rare and powerful 
thing. In the majority of other cultures, a highly developed sense 
of tolerance is likely to be construed as a sign of weakness. How 
many wild creatures would be roaming the United States if we 
had about four times our current human population on one- 
third the land area? Can you imagine North Americans or Eu- 
ropeans putting up with elephants in their fields nightly? With 
elephants killing between 1 50 and 200 people yearly? 

But to Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains alike, the soul is not an 
exclusive possession of each person nor an exclusively human 
possession. It is a vital force that cycles through different lives, 
animal as well as human. Namaste is the usual greeting in much 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 331 

of India and Nepal; it means “I salute the god within you.” God 
is within the giant, too. 

In crediting other species with souls, people are acknowledg- 
ing the animals’ commonality with humans. They, too, have 
eyes, ears, glands, muscles, hands, and feet. And brains. They, 
too, have families and show emotions. They, too, have needs. 
Why would they not also have souls? Not as advanced as ours, 
say the sages, but nonetheless sacred. After all, the soul animat- 
ing that beast may have animated a human in a former life. This 
is not too far a leap from saying that the vitality of an ecosystem 
that sustains other species is one and the same as the vitality that 
ultimately sustains us. 

Jainism diverged from Hinduism at about the same time as 
Buddhism and took the practice of ahimsa to what some would 
consider an extreme form. Aren’t Jains the folks who went 
around with cloths over their mouths because they were afraid 
they might accidentally inhale a bug and kill it? Yes, their monks 
and nuns did — and still do. And Jains eat before dusk, when so 
many insects emerge to fly about that some are likely to land in 
the cooking pot. Yet the point is not wholly to save insects’ 
souls. It is in good part to purify one’s own life and increase one’s 
own awareness through concern for the lives of others, and that 
seems to me a point well worth considering. 

Even though it has been said countless times in countless 
ways, it bears repeating: The way in which we treat other species 
cannot finally be separated from the way we humans treat one 
another, and vice versa. That’s what the demonstrators were 
saying in the streets of Delhi. 

Beyond what I learned about elephants, India taught me 
about the power of a moral belief, seriously applied, when it 
comes to coexisting with wild beings. It made me realize that es- 
tablishing wildlife reserves was only part of the solution. There 
is a tremendous amount of moral habitat left to work with in 
most countries in order to achieve the conservation of kindred 
beings. Neither approach — admirable sanctuaries or enlight- 
ened acceptance of the right of other life forms to exist — is 
going to work alone. Together, they can work miracles. 

At the same time, India taught me that even the most prom- 



33 * The Fate of the Elephant 


ising combination of nature reserves and tolerance cannot with- 
stand for much longer the unrestrained growth of human 
numbers under way at the moment. Without population con- 
trol, all the best intentions in the world to preserve and learn 
from nature are probably going to prove futile. All the miracles 
will have been for naught. 


l51Sl5l51Sl5lSl5lSnSl5ISlS 

I used my short time in Delhi to visit ivory shops. One of the 
first I located was an ivory boutique in an expensive hotel. Iron- 
ically, the owner assured me that he was a Jain opposed to harm- 
ing any animals; that was why 1 should consider buying his 
wares. The sign in his window proclaimed: “All ivory articles 
are from mammoth tusks — a prehistoric animal — and are not 
included in SITES [sic] in the world. At least 10,000 years old.” 

The carved articles were mainly large statues. Part of the rind, 
or exterior, was generally left on to show the tusk’s age by its 
cracked and discolored quality. Yet the interior was the same 
exquisite pearly white as modern ivory, right down to the cross- 
hatched moire pattern of reticulation. A fossil rind can be mim- 
icked on modern tusks by a combination of baking and staining, 
but the carved tusks in this shop were so big that they would 
have been worth a fortune if they were really modern ivory. One 
statue of an entwined Siva and Parvati was hewn from a tusk 
whose likes hadn’t been seen since the Great White Hunters pur- 
sued 150-pounders in British East Africa. It was mammoth 
ivory for sure. 

In most of the other ivory shops, I found plenty of the usual 
items carved from recent tusks: gods, elephants, lamp pedestals, 
and gee-gaws. 1 also encountered ivory plate fashioned into vir- 
tually anything you can imagine, from model railroad trains and 
village scenes to book covers. Still thinner sheets of veneer had 
been shaved for miniature painting in oil and gold. Once again, 
every dealer assured me that he handled only legal ivory. Better 
yet, each swore that it was old Indian ivory, from tusks bought 
long before CITES even existed. And only two dealers out of 
dozens admitted that I would be violating the law if I tried to 



India: Mudumalai Sanctuary 333 

take any ivory into the United States, but both cheerfully 
showed me how I could slip sheets of painted ivory veneer into 
a book and carry that through customs. 

Thus I spent my final hours in Delhi listening to little white 
lies and a couple of whoppers. I considered that significant in 
view of the impending CITES meeting. As a result of existing 
bans by individual countries and a growing boycott by con* 
sumers, the price of ivory had tumbled by 50 percent in places 
such as Zaire. Middlemen no longer gave advances to poachers. 
The business of illegal killing was on the skids, and poachers 
were reportedly stockpiling tusks by burying them in the forest, 
awaiting better market conditions. Another report claimed 
Hong Kong was still obtaining and stockpiling ivory, too, even 
though its “legal” total, accounted for in recent CITES inven- 
tories, now exceeded 700 tons. 

Zimbabwe and South Africa were still utterly intent upon 
sabotaging any unanimous ban, claiming that they needed to sell 
ivory to support conservation. CITES Secretary-General Eu- 
gene LaPointe was pushing their “Buy ivory — save an elephant” 
position even harder than before, despite criticism of CITES for 
accepting donations from ivory dealers. One of LaPointe’s chief 
arguments was that the ivory trade could be controlled and all 
aspects of it conducted legally. 

As I said before, I met only a handful of honest ivory dealers 
in all my travels, and they were the ones who openly advised me 
to smuggle the stuff. Another thought I carried with me to the 
meeting concerned how many hundreds and hundreds of thou- 
sands of dollars were going to be spent on airplanes, hotel 
rooms, meals, and drinks — not to mention the pro-ivory pro- 
paganda being produced at CITES’ expense by LaPointe — so 
bureaucrats from around the world could huddle in one of the 
most costly of nations to decide the fate of elephants. Mean- 
while, Kenyan park rangers continued to risk their lives against 
poachers for about U. S. $2. 50 a day — the price of a beer in Lau- 
sanne. In Corbett National Park, north of Delhi, I had just met 
trackers assisting in crucial scientific studies of elephants for 
U.S. S40 per month. Why was it that the money never seemed 
to make it all the way out to where elephants needed to be saved? 



ELEVEN 


Switzerland 


15151515' Wildlife is the second-most-lucrative illegal 
trade item in the world, exceeded only by drugs. That this sor- 
did use of our fellow creatures should continue heralds grievous 
ecological damage and “the moral impoverishment of us all,” 
intoned Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, leading off the Oc- 
tober 1989 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in 
Endangered Species (CITES), the primary international body 
governing the import and export of wild animals and the prod- 
ucts made from them. 

Gathered at the Palais Beaulieu in Lausanne, Switzerland, on 
Lake Geneva’s shore, the 100-Odd member nations of CITES 
had many subjects on their agenda, from vanishing crocodilians 
to the farming of rare butterflies. But everyone knew that the 
heart and soul of this meeting was to review the official status of 
the African elephant. Would it remain on Appendix II of CITES 
regulations, the threatened species category, which permitted 
continued trade in ivory? Or would it be declared truly endan- 
gered and placed on Appendix I, under which further trade in 
ivory would be universally banned? Every hallway and room 
buzzed with opinions, rumors, and negotiations regarding the 
elephants’ fate. 

In addition to delegates from the member nations, the palace 
held selected advocates from both the ivory industry — I recog- 
nized Kageo Takaichi, the ivory importer and hanko manufac- 
turer I had visited in Osaka — and conservation organizations. 
Representatives of the press were present as well, but had been 
screened and winnowed down to a few in order to avoid what 
delegates feared would become a media carnival. Although, as a 



SWITZBBLAND 335 

representative of the National Geographic Society, 1 was among 
those chosen, I thought it unfair that CITES did not permit 
more open coverage. Too few members of the public even un- 
derstand what CITES is, much less how its decisions affect their 
world’s living resources. 

The more coverage, the better, for wildlife. It was because the 
plight of elephants had been so well reported lately that these an- 
imals were now the subject of global concern. In many respects, 
elephants had come to symbolize the world’s fauna as a whole. 
The giants' fate reflected the fate of countless smaller species 
being hounded toward oblivion. At the same time, the type of 
frenzied commercial onslaught associated with ivory reminded 
people of what had happened to the one group of living animals 
larger than elephants: the great whales. Accordingly, this some- 
what technical issue of whether Loxodonta africana should be 
listed on Appendix I or II had become something of a crossroads 
for modem conservation, a test of our will to coexist with other 
life forms. 

CITES officials said they did not want a carnival atmosphere, 
but that was exactly what glimmered in the plaza just outside the 
Palais Beaulieu. Nearly a thousand schoolchildren wearing ele- 
phant ears paraded about and at one point dashed up the impos- 
ing palace steps and completed a singing, chanting circuit of the 
building’s interior. An African band played in the center of the 
square. Above the whole scene floated a gargantuan hot-air bal- 
loon replica of an elephant, costumed as if for a procession in In- 
dia. Not only was this plaza scene a lot more fun than the tense, 
suited-up-for-business climate inside, it touched more directly 
upon what elephants really represent to the populace at large: 
Awe. Wonder. Fascination. A sense of kindred needs and con- 
sciousness. I had been in India long enough that I could squint 
up at the great balloon and imagine Ganesh hovering there, re- 
minding us — amid the discussions of biology and economic 
trade-offs heating up inside the palace — that elephants are irre- 
placeable resources of the spirit. 

Overall, the news from the ivory war front continued to be 
mixed. Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton greeted me with ac- 



33<S The Fate of the Elephant 


counts of continuing improvement of protection in Kenya. “It's 
quite amazing,” Iain told me. “Our parks are patrolled by wild- 
life department guys who actually have guns and cars and radios 
that workl Young, able, dedicated guys. The department finally 
has the money it needs from the government, and outside con- 
tributions have added to the kitty. We've managed to seriously 
knock down poaching in the past few months.” 

The price of raw ivory continued falling in Africa due to the 
recent U.S., European, and Japanese bans; on imports. How- 
ever, poaching was still reportedly heavy in some regions, in- 
cluding parts of Angola, Mozambique, and Zambia (and parts 
of India, Burma, and Thailand as well, I knew). Ivory sales re- 
mained brisk in Far Eastern countries such as North Korea and 
Taiwan, and tusks were reportedly selling for an all-time high in 
South America. Several conservationists with whom I spoke 
saw this as a sinister development, given the involvement of cer- 
tain South American nations in the number-one illegal trade 
item, drugs. Prince Bernhard had pointed out in his opening re- 
marks that the same people were increasingly dealing in both 
commodities. 

It seemed clear from straw polls that the majority of dele- 
gates, reflecting world opinion, favored stronger protection of 
the African elephant. Nevertheless, representatives from Zim- 
babwe and South Africa were desperately marshaling support 
for the pro-ivory cause. They maintained that elephants in those 
countries were overpopulated and needed regular culling, and 
that there was no good reason why sales of culled ivory should 
not be allowed to continue, especially since the money was used 
to support other vital wildlife management programs. More- 
over, fees from trophy elephant hunts could be channeled back 
to local tribal groups to encourage them to protect the animals 
and their habitat. 

While not so adamant about continuing to sell ivory in the fu- 
ture, a few other nations complained about being stuck with 
substantial stocks of ivory at present. For instance, a delegate 
representing Congolese traders told the assembly that three ma- 
jor ivory shipments to Japan had been caught in transit by that 



Switzerland 337 

country's latest ban and were now gathering dust in customs, 
doing no one any good. The Congolese would not have engaged 
in the trade if it had not been legal, he said, but we did it because 
CITES approved. He asked that they at least be allowed to sell 
the ivory they were holding. 

Not surprisingly, that was Hong Kong’s plea as well. But the 
subject of legalizing ivory stocks was a sore one. Eugene La- 
Pointe, head of the CITES secretariat, had been doing that for 
years — declaring a kind of amnesty for accumulations of tusks 
that everyone knew had been obtained mainly by hook and by 
crook. All right, he was saying in effect; the elephants are already 
dead, so you might as well sell off the stuff. But just this once. 
You better not buy any more illegal tusks, because this is abso- 
lutely, positively the last time I’m going to let you do this. 

And then LaPointe would do it again. It was difficult to see 
what the legalizations had accomplished other than further prof- 
iting poachers and rich ivory dealers at the elephants’ expense. 
The following passage from Marc Reisner’s terrific book Game 
Wars sums up the situation: 

“In 1986 . . . acting on the paid advice of lan Parker, a former 
professional elephant hunter who has killed thousands of the an- 
imals in his lifetime, LaPointe issued CITES permits to eighty- 
nine tons of ivory stockpiled in Burundi. Because Burundi’s 
elephant population is completely extinct, every one of the eight 
thousand elephants sacrificed to the charnel pile is likely to have 
been poached. LaPointe did the same thing again in Singapore — 
where he unilaterally ’legalized’ three hundred and fifty tons, most 
of which was again poached — and again in Somalia, Djibouti, 
and several other countries. The secretariat’s argument, then as 
now, was that a legal ivory market must be allowed to exist; if 
the trade were to go completely underground, as in the case of 
cocaine, prices would skyrocket and things would get even 
worse. But Ian Parker later admitted that he had taken a seven- 
hundred-fifty-thousand-dollar bribe in Burundi in exchange for 
including, in his ‘amnesty’ recommendations, several huge ship- 
ments of poached ivory then about to be added to the stockpile 
(it came from Zaire, Tanzania, and other African countries).” 



33l The Fats op thb Elephant 

The private, London-based Environmental Investigation 
Agency estimated that select Hong Kong dealers garnered on the 
order of $20 million in windfall profits from LaPointe’s “legal- 
izations,” which made those dealers’ contributions to CITES 
over the years of LaPointe’s tenure, at best, unseemly. And ele- 
phantless Burundi had accumulated yet another ivory hoard that 
it was requesting be legalized. 

Improprieties and innuendoes of criminal mischief aside, the 
inescapable fact was that since 1976 CITES had tried one scheme 
of quotas and trade controls after another — eight all told — to get 
a handle on illegal ivory dealings. Each in its turn had proved na- 
ive and wholly ineffective. (Some said that was the whole point 
of the exercise.) Poaching and smuggling had only increased, 
and the African elephant population had collapsed. And now, 
here in Lausanne, LaPointe and the southern African contingent 
were once again promoting the idea that with a new system of 
quotas and controls, ivory could still be traded without harming 
the African elephant. Why? Because, this time, the illegal side of 
the business was really going to be shut down. This time, they 
were absolutely, positively going to find a system of quotas and 
controls that worked. •' 

It was not an easy argument to sell. Yet it was being taken 
seriously. 

In addition to being a professional elephant hunter and ivory 
trader, Ian Parker was known as a game management specialist. 
He had carried out research on elephant populations in Uganda 
and other African countries over the years and worked for in- 
ternational agencies as a scientific advisor. Together with Rowan 
Martin, another well-known game biologist and current head of 
Zimbabwe’s parks and wildlife department, and South African 
wildlife biologist Anthony Hall-Martin, Parker had long been 
in the forefront of those in the wildlife fraternity opposed to 
stricter protection for Loxodonta africana. 

These men maintained that the problem in a number of areas 
was not too few giants but too many; that instead of being cod- 
dled, they needed to be controlled to keep them from damaging 
native habitats and other species of wildlife dependent upon 



Switzerland 339 

those habitats. When Parker and Martin asserted that there were 
far more elephants left in Africa than the figures put forth by Iain 
Douglas-Hamilton suggested, respect for their opinion was such 
that many people assumed the question of how elephants were 
really faring was still wide open. Maybe things aren’t so bad af- 
ter all. You know how those animal-lover types are always 
screaming that the sky is about to fall. Let’s not get too excited 
here. It takes a professional game manager to stand up for the ra- 
tional perspective and point out the harsh reality that we some- 
times have to shoot animals for their own good. 

So the elephants and their specific problems got lost to some 
extent in the ongoing philosophical battle within the conserva- 
tion commumty. Finding the emotional protectionist approach 
distasteful personally, a number of wildlife professionals sat 
back to await indisputable population data showing that the el- 
ephants were in trouble. The protectionists felt that the burden 
of proof should be on those who believed elephants were doing 
fine. 

No shortage of accusations existed on either side. As often 
happens, what started as a disagreement over ideas had deterio- 
rated into an intense personal battle between key players. I had 
met Ian Parker in Nairobi and spent an afternoon talking with 
him at his home. He felt so personally maligned by others at that 
point that he didn’t even want to talk about elephants at first. 
Once he did begin to present his viewpoints, however, he ar- 
rayed them before me with a quickness and grasp of biology that 
revealed a formidable intelligence at work. I understood why his 
had been such a persuasive presence over the years. 


Yes, the southern African states make a strong argument for 
ivory, said the representative from Gambia as the formal debate 
proceeded on the floor. But we in Gambia see death instead of 
economic benefits. We see poachers killing not only elephants 
but people — most recently a twenty-four-year-old park guard, 
who left behind a wife and newborn child. As for the ivory 



34® The Fatb op the Elephant 


stockpiles, they represent illegally, immorally obtained tusks. If 
certain countries are left holding them, too bad. It is not our re- 
sponsibility to bail them out. 

Ninety-four percent of the ivory taken in Tanzania is 
poached, said that country’s delegate, wildlife department di- 
rector Constantius Mlay. That leaves only 6 percent yielding 
money for government coffers. So why should the killing be al- 
lowed to continue? Tanzania had 100,000 elephants in the Selous 
Game Reserve area alone in 1976. A decade later, in 1986, there 
were just 55,000; and in 1989, only 27,000 — halved again, this 
time in just three years. Poaching on such a scale encourages 
lawlessness in general. It breeds social instability. If you like the 
idea of keeping ivory legal, wait until your countries are invaded 
by paramilitary forces with automatic weapons. This is too great 
a price to pay. Besides, he reminded the audience, the CITES 
gathering is supposed to be about saving species, not about sav- 
ing businesses, not about saving face. 

Zimbabwe, represented by Rowan Martin, countered with its 
argument that banning trade in rhinoceros horn hadn’t slowed 
the killing for a minute; in fact, it had made rhino horn more 
valuable than ever and increased pressure on both black and 
white rhinos. But, he added, we have rhinos aplenty in Zim- 
babwe. Antipoaching efforts work in our country because we 
back them up with dollars, as Kenya is finally coming around to 
doing now. Zimbabwe spends U.S. $12 million annually to 
counter illegal killing, and it is worth it, because revenues from 
wildlife come to almost U.S. $100 million, including more than 
U.S. Sio million from ivory sales. Ivory alone pays for most of 
the protection for all species. If the elephant is removed from in- 
ternational trade, it will be devastating for Zimbabwe. Why 
should we be made to suffer and give up a proven system because 
of the inability of other nations to control poaching and practice 
sound wildlife management within their borders? 

South Africa said little and worked mosdy behind the scenes, 
perhaps aware that it would not help for a delegate from the 
white-ruled political pariah of the continent to tell other African 
countries what to do. The mystery was why South Africa was 



Switzerland 341 

fighting so hard for continued Appendix II status when it had 
fewer than 8000 elephants and made a relatively insignificant 
amount of money from sales of legally culled ivory. Safari hunt- 
ing was big business in South Africa, but Appendix I status 
wouldn’t change that. My guess was that the country was in the 
fray chiefly on principle, being a leading practitioner of inten- 
sive game management. 

Explaining why it had finally decided to support Appendix I 
listing, the World Wildlife Fund said that despite the good con- 
servation records of Zimbabwe and South Africa in recent 
times, the illegal trade spilled across international boundaries 
and defied all efforts to regulate it more closely. 

The U.S. delegation observed that it agreed in principle with 
the southern African position of culling elephants on a sustained 
yield basis. But, added the spokesperson, forces beyond the con- 
trol of any one nation clearly placed the African elephant in se- 
rious danger. Since all efforts to cut off the illegal supply had 
failed, it was time to try ending the demand for ivory by banning 
it outright. 

Someone speaking for the IUCN (the United Nations- 
sponsored International Union for the Conservation of Nature 
and Natural Resources) refused to even call the elephant killers 
poachers. We must call them what they truly are, he declared: 
well-organized, ruthless criminals involved in the destruction of 
an African asset and a world asset. He then proposed a sort of 
compromise that had been the subject of much private dis- 
cussion: first. Appendix I listing for most African countries but 
Appendix II for those such as Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Bo- 
tswana, which had proven management programs and evidence 
of stable or increasing elephant populations; second, a morato- 
rium on ivory trade for at least a year until a criminal-proof sys- 
tem of collecting and trading ivory was established. 

Hold, said the delegate from Israel. Some countries have been 
implying that they could no longer manage their elephants if 
there is a change to Appendix I listing, but this is deliberately 
misleading. An Appendix I listing in no way stops countries 
from killing elephants to protect crops, culling them to protect 



34* Thb Fatb of the Elephant 

habitats where the giants are confined and overcrowded, carry- 
ing out trophy hunting, or taking a certain number for meat to 
provide protein to local people. Appendix I stipulates only that 
the tusks of the animals will not be traded. Yet now I hear a call 
for compromise. CITES has compromised for years and years 
and is compromising the elephant out of existence. The ivory 
dealers have demonstrated time and time again that they can ex- 
ploit every loophole, and a brief moratorium will only stimulate 
the stockpiling of ivory during the interim. Sputh Africa, a chief 
proponent of continued trade, suffers from illicit ivory dealing. 
It is known that South Africans have been involved in launder- 
ing tusks poached in Angola and Botswana. Forty tons of 
poached ivory have lately exited South Africa despite their best 
protection efforts. How can they, of all countries, claim that 
CITES will now be able to control trade internationally? 

Similarly, although Rowan Martin stated that he doubted the 
number of elephants poached in Zimbabwe of late had reached 
double digits, the Environmental Investigation Agency stated 
that some 1000 elephant carcasses lay scattered in Zimbabwe’s 
Gonarezhou National Park. The culprits were said to include 
rebels from neighboring Mozambique, the Zimbabwean army, 
Zimbabwean park personnel, and the relative of a ranking gov- 
ernment official; among them, the park superintendent and the 
relative of a top-ranking minister. Also, argued various parties, 
the high number of living elephants claimed by Zimbabwe very 
likely included animals fleeing from heavy poaching in nearby 
sections of Zambia and seasonal migrants from bordering areas 
in Botswana. Zimbabwe was cooking its census figures. Not 
so, Martin replied. Zimbabwe keeps revising its estimates 
upward — they seem to show elephants increasing faster than the 
species’ reproductive capacity — because techniques for survey- 
ing the animals are improving. 

India had lately been claiming that it had 7000 to 10,000 ivory 
carvers, though Esmond Bradley Martin’s updated figures 
showed only 2600 to 2700 still in the business. I was curious as 
to what the Indian delegate would say. What he said was that In- 
dia did not want its ivory industry to survive at the expense of 



Switzerland 343 

die African elephant. Though saddened by the fate of its carvers, 
India would go along with Appendix I. 

And so it continued through one day and into the next. And 
the next. I took long walks along the autumn-colored shores of 
Lake Geneva, smelling fresh snow from the distant peaks on the 
wind and getting homesick for Montana. I covered many miles, 
striding off the tension and mulling over the latest facts shot into 
the debate. For example, in 1979, it took 54 elephants to get a ton 
of ivory. Now, with mature tuskers all but nonexistent and fe- 
males the prime target, it took 113 elephants and left an average 
of 55 orphaned calves and young juveniles to die later. All this, 
I thought as I hurried on — all this killing, the corruption, the 
years of controversy, the meeting itself — and they’re only teeth. 
Calcium phosphate. The dentine from incisor teeth. 

Back in the building, I bumped into game-warden-turned- 
wildlife-cinematographer Simon Trevor from Tsavo. He told 
me that while filming in Zimbabwe, he came upon an elephant 
hunting guide with a downcast face. It turned out that the man’s 
client, a shooter from the United States, had just quit following 
a phone call from his wife. This was not long after the U.S. ban 
on ivory. The wife had said something like: I just heard about 
what’s happening to the elephants over there in Africa. You get 
a trophy elephant, husband dear, and you get a divorce from me. 

Simon had no sympathy for Zimbabwe’s practice of large- 
scale culling of elephants. What kind of men, he asked, can 
shoot down a herd and tie the surviving babies to their mothers’ 
carcasses to be saved for later export to zoos and circuses, know • 
ing what they do about elephant intelligence and social behav- 
ior? Simon knew perhaps more than most. He also lived next 
door to Eleanor, the elephant matriarch who acted as surrogate 
mother for the orphans reared by Daphne Sheldrick and released 
back into the wild in Tsavo. 

I hope I have conveyed a sense of the emotions invested in this 
debate. I don’t know how even-handed I’ve been. Probably not 
very. My own feelings regarding elephants must be fairly evi- 
dent by now. I did not start out favoring the southern African 
position on ivory trading, and the more I saw of the elephants’ 



344 The Fate of the Elephant 


situation in both Africa and Asia, the less I cared for the pro- 
ivory stance. To state it as plainly as possible: at this stage in my 
elephant travels, I was nowhere close to being an objective 
reporter. 

The examples I selected to illustrate the debate in the Palais 
Beaulieu are weighted heavily against the Appendix II forces. 
That reflects my own bias, but also the way things stood among 
the delegates. The final vote was seventy-six to eleven in favor 
of moving the African elephant onto Appendix I, with a ban on 
all further trade in ivory and a resolution that all existing stocks 
of tusks be destroyed within months. Through the auspices of 
Great Britain, an exception was made for Hong Kong, which 
was given a six-month window in which to dispose of its stock. 
Also, the import and export of tusks from trophy hunting 
would still be permitted. But beyond that, the African elephant 
won a sort of restraining order against humans afflicted with 
ivory madness. 


Contrary to the southern African group’s predictions, the price 
of elephant teeth did not soar as soon as the commodity became 
outlawed everywhere. On the contrary, the price plummeted at 
once and continued to sink by degrees for months afterward. 
Despite their earlier threats to exercise the right of any nation 
under CITES to take an exception to the ban and continue ex- 
porting ivory, Zimbabwe and South Africa refrained from trad- 
ing tusks, much to their credit. 

The public was just starting to get the message: Don’t buy 
ivory. I thought it important that they not be sent a confusing 
follow-up to the effect that some ivory is “good” and you should 
buy it and wear it with pride. I also subscribed to the opinion 
that as long as any countries continued to trade in ivory and en- 
courage its consumption, this would hold the door open to 
abuses and jeopardize the greatest creature walking the earth. 

But it was at the CITES meeting that I made arrangements to 
visit Zimbabwe toward the beginning of the next summer. 



Switzerland 34$ 

Seeing as how I had such a strong opinion about the southern 
African approach, it wouldn’t hurt to go gather more facts first- 
hand. Just now, I was going home to my family. Then 1 was 
going to stop off in Southeast Asia to finish my investigation of 
the most endangered species of elephant. Eventually, my course 
would lead to Zimbabwe and beyond, to Botswana, where it 
would intersect the paths of southern Africa's greatest remain- 
ing elephant population. At the time, I knew Botswana was con- 
sidering a program to begin culling its herds, estimated to total 
between 60,000 and 90,000 animals. What I could not have 
guessed is that by 1991, Zimbabwe and South Africa, this time 
joined by Botswana, Malawi, and Namibia, would be asking 
CITES to downlist their elephant populations and that of Zam- 
bia to Appendix II, and the whole debate would be in full roar 
again in preparation for another tumultuous meeting of CITES 
in 1992. 



TWELVE 


Thailand 


15151515' A Thai zoologist, Dr. Boonsong Lekagul, 
notes a report of pygmy Asian elephants living along the shores 
of a lake at Songkhla, near Thailand’s southern tip, within the 
past century. He said they were less than five feet tall at the 
shoulder. Were these juveniles with exceptional tusks? Adults 
whose growth was stunted by poor forage or certain chemical 
compounds in the area’s plants? A genetically distinct subpopu- 
lation? Whatever it was, the Songkhla elephants have disap- 
peared in more recent times. 

Nevertheless, some interesting physical variations remain 
within Elephas maximus. I’ve mentioned tusklessness in India and 
Sri Lanka, where bulls with that trait are known as mucknas. In 
Thailand, they are called sidor? Conversely, female Asian ele- 
phants with full-length tusks are found on rare occasions. Some 
bulls have tusks shaped like banana flower buds. As part of this 
apparent genetic trait, the same animals tend to have deep black 
skin and blackish nails. And then there are the white elephants. 

Among the predominantly Buddhist kingdoms of Southeast 
Asia, white elephants are seen as descendants of the original 
winged elephants that roamed the cloudscapes above Earth and 
as avatars of the Buddha. The finding of a white elephant during 
the reign of a monarch was considered the most auspicious event 
imaginable. The peasant who located the beast might be brought 
before the ruler to have his ears and mouth stuffed with gold as 
a reward. As the white animal lumbered through its new home 
at the palace compound, attendants shaded it with silk umbrel- 
las, offered platters of delicacies, and burned incense to sweeten 
the air while musicians played soothing music. The youngest 
were said to be suckled by twelve human wet nurses. 



Thailand 347 

It is hard to know whether treatment so luxurious took place 
on a daily basis or was part of the display laid on for special oc- 
casions and visiting dignitaries, who penned some of the surviv- 
ing accounts of such fabulous pomp. The maintenance of a 
white elephant was never cheap in any case. According to the 
stories, a king might make a gift of several white elephants to a 
powerful upstart noble, knowing that care of the creatures 
would be a serious enough drain on the man’s treasury to keep 
him from raising an army instead. This is one of the explana- 
tions for how the term white elephant came to stand for some- 
thing large and cosdy that yoy find yourself stuck with. 

A long struggle between the Khmer and Sukhothai states in 
this part of Southeast Asia was finally won during the thirteenth 
century a.d. by the Thais, whom the Khmers called syams , from 
a Sanskrit word for dark, referring to their skin color. Hence the 
early name for Thailand: Siam. After a major invasion mounted 
by the Burmese in 1549 narrowly failed, the Thais decided to 
round up 300 more wild elephants to train them for battle. As 
men scoured the forests for war elephants, seven white ones 
were found and sent off to the Thai monarch. When Burma’s 
King Bayinnaung heard of this, he was supposedly so overcome 
by jealousy that he prepared another invasion. 

This one succeeded. The Thai capital was sacked in 1569 and 
a vassal king installed. But fifteen years later, that king’s son, 
Naresuan, struck back and liberated Thailand. Popular tales still 
recount the epic battles between Naresuan ’s elephant-mounted 
forces and those of Burma’s Prince Phramaha U’paraj. I heard 
more than one person say that Thailand won its freedom on the 
backs of elephants, which the Thais call chang. During the early 
years of the current Chakkri Dynasty, founded in 1782, the Thai 
flag bore a likeness of a royal white elephant. Insignias for the 
Thai navy and embassy incorporate a white elephant in their de- 
sign. Various awards for government service do the same. 
Bronze sculptures of white elephants stand by memorials for the 
Chakkri kings buried at the old royal palace. The elephants’ fea- 
tures have been blurred over the year? by untold thousands who 
came to pay their respects and paused to rub the sculptures for 
luck. 



34& The Fate op the Elephant 

Few real white elephants exist, and almost none of them are 
literally white. I never saw anything like a true unpigmented al- 
bino, though I was told of a strikingly pale animal kept in a zoo 
in Vientiane, Laos. Most of the so-called white elephants of Asia 
merely have coloring that is slightly lighter than normal. This is 
usually most noticeable in the eyes, toenails, the hairs on the 
body, the long hairs of the tail, and, if you stretch out the skin 
and look closely, in the creases between thicker parts of the epi- 
dermis. Other light areas are the palate and testicles, making 
seven traditional measures of whiteness altogether. 

You or I might find it hard to tell a white elephant from an or- 
dinary one. But there are men who specialize in determining 
grades, or degrees, of elephant whiteness. They are called gaja- 
jeeva, to use the Hindi term for elephant expert — or perhaps el- 
ephant metaphysician would be more appropriate. The seven 
measures assume great importance in their work, and so do such 
qualities as an elephant’s gait, carriage, and overall conforma- 
tion. Cajajeevas can discourse for hours on the way a giant’s tail 
hangs in relation to the hindquarters and what that reveals about 
the animal’s vigor and what sort of luck it will bring to the 
people around it. They know how an elephant with an “un- 
couth” stance or a crooked tail is a harbinger of misfortune. Ga- 
jajeevas can tell you all this and more — that is, if you can find 
any. Such men have always been scarcer than white elephants. 

I met a gajajeeva in mid- April of 1990. The arrangements 
were made by Dr. Mom Luang Phiphatanachatr Diskul, nick- 
named Pony, veterinarian to His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, 
King Rama IX of Thailand’s Chakkri Dynasty, at the royal pal- 
ace in Bangkok. A visitor does not pass easily through the palace 
gate in this country, where at least twenty-six coups and coun- 
tercoups have taken place since 1932. But Pony, who is of royal 
blood himself, ushered me speedily past the guards and militia 
toward the green palace grounds, where he oversees the health 
and welfare of the animals kept there. These include horses, 
dairy cows, and, at last count, four male and six female white el- 
ephants, the oldest of which was sixty-three when I arrived. 
Thirty royal mahouts attended to the giants. The elephants lived 



Thailand 349 

in special houses with gilded pagoda roofs and dined on grass, 
sugar cane, papaya, banana, and mineral supplements. And 
when they bathed, they splashed about in a died pool set within 
a courtyard of mowed grass. As several showered themselves 
beneath a flowering jacaranda, Pony introduced me to Sanet 
Thanapradit, an overseer of royal ceremonies and long-dme of- 
ficial connoisseur of white elephants. A true gajajeeva. 

“We have entire books on how to certify a white elephant, but 
a person must rely upon his own judgment as well,” he said. “1 
started in the royal ceremony division at age eighteen, and I 
would tag along on trips through the country with people who 
were quite expert at checking the qualities of elephants. Now I 
know more than they did. After all, I am eighty-four years old, 
so I have been sixty-six years with white elephants. Memory and 
experience; how else does a man learn?” 

I told Sanet Thanapradit that I thought he looked at least two 
decades younger. I meant it. 

“Thank you. I attribute my longevity to my use of bee pollen 
and ginseng. I don’t smoke or drink. Or have a wife — ha! Now, 
we must get on to this business of elephants.” And he proceeded 
to talk practically nonstop for the rest of the afternoon. 

Whenever someone catches an elephant in the forest, said Sa- 
net Thanapradit — who sometimes tended to overlook differ- 
ences between the present and past, as if the current difficulties 
with endangered species and bans on any capture of wild Asian 
elephants might blow over and things return to normal in royal 
Siam — that person is supposed to register the animal with local 
authorities. If any among them observes the seven signs of 
whiteness, he is obliged to notify the royal office. A gajajeeva 
such as himself will be dispatched at once to examine the beast 
for further desirable traits. 

Not only must the nails be white, the elephant metaphysician 
elaborated, but in the best elephants they should be smooth as 
well, and clean near the origins. The cuticle should be white, 
too. Although the hairs of virtually all elephants are black at the 
base, those of white elephants lighten markedly toward the tip. 
Just as important, whereas normal elephants have a single hair 



350 The Fate of the Elephant 

coming out of a pore, or follicle, white elephants tend to have 
two or even three hairs per follicle. 

Sanet Thanapradit indicated those on the side of a resting an* 
imal. From there, his hand swept back toward the long, clublike 
tail. “The long hairs here must grow in a nice fan pattern and be 
visibly whitish, at least near the tip,” he informed me. “The 
whole tail should give the impression of curling upward at the 
end, like a bodhi leaf.” His hand continued downward, cutting 
curves to show the proper relationship between the tail and rear 
legs. “Don’t forget how important are the length and shape of 
the ankles.” Certainly not. Nor would I forget how he pointed 
out the way the animal’s long chin hairs should take on at least a 
hint of a true beard shape as well as being white. Finally, the 
voice during trumpeting ought to be high and resonant, its tone 
reminding listeners of the sound of a conch shell, widely used in 
Buddhist ceremonies. 

If the majority of these additional characteristics are present, 
the elephant must be turned over to the king. The finder will be 
suitably rewarded — these days, perhaps with a medal. An offi- 
cial is sent to the province to oversee construction of a special 
stable and initial training of the animal. “Before setting out,” 
noted Sanet Thanapradit, “the trainer must conduct his own 
ceremony and pray to the angel of elephants for success in 
his undertaking.” (Thai Buddhism generally includes a strong 
infusion of Brahminism. Consequently, while elephants usually 
symbolize Buddha, they may also be associated with the Hindu 
deity Ganesh.) “For this ceremony, he must bring a new rope for 
the elephant plus an old rope from the National Museum. We 
Thai people pay respect to our ancestors and teachers before we 
undertake anything. It brings luck and makes things work.” 

The goal of the initial training is to teach the elephant the cor- 
rect way to approach and mount a teak platform and accept cer- 
tain ministrations. Once the animal has learned to do that, it will 
be brought to the royal palace grounds and there take part in a 
three-day ceremony, during which it is given its name by the 
king. Once the elephant is standing upon the teak platform, the 
king, who has mounted still higher, pours holy water over it. 



Thailand 351 

Then the king descends and, accompanied by the chanted bless- 
ings of assembled monks, feeds the elephant its name; that is, he 
gives the animal a stalk of sugar cane with its name carefully 
carved upon it in delicate script. Ideally, the elephant shows no 
trace of nervousness as the king approaches and performs these 
acts, and this is taken as proof of the natural kinship of the Ung 
and white elephants. 

The name fed to the elephant is a long title that includes its 
rank. There are four classes, or castes, of white elephants, and 
much of the examination by elephant metaphysicians is to de- 
termine exactly which one the particular animal belongs to. All 
of them are roughly equivalent to a member of the royal family. 
In fact, the whole naming ceremony differs little from that used 
for princesses and princes. And when a white elephant dies, it is 
given the same burial ceremony as a highly regarded human, 
complete with the presence of a Brahmin priest. 

Pony and Sanet Thanapradit took me to see the grandest of 
the king’s white elephants, a bull called Pra Barom Nakkot. He 
is one of the highest-ranking white elephants ever captured. On 
the outside of the pavilion where he lives alone, his name and 
rank are etched onto a plaque. The title is four full lines long and 
written in old-style Sanskrit. The translator with me had a dif- 
ficult time putting the meaning into English. 

“Carrier of Vishnu,” the translator began, “he who will 
progress much among the elephants . . . One who has foremost 
prestige. Oh, this is very complicated. Highest of the highest of 
the elephants. It goes on to say he comes from heaven as a gift to 
the king. Belongs to the king as a gift from the Siamese people, 
too. He is so rare and strange, the most beautiful of all . . . with 
the color of water lotus. That is between pink and white, you 
know. Let me see . . . The big lotus that is pure; lotus from a 
pure, clean source devoid of all evil, ... all the good character- 
istics that emanate from its own self. Happy to offer all this to 
his majesty, to augment his majesty’s power with his own. ...” 
The translator suddenly turned to me, a sheepish smile replacing 
his earlier look of bewilderment mingled with frustration, and 
whispered, “Do you know this elephant outranks me and every- 



3J2 The Fate of the Elephant 


one else here by many miles? It is like the highest of princes. I 
really ought to bow to it to show my respect.” 

“Its toenails and cuticles are perfectly white/’ the overseer of 
ceremonies said in a hushed voice. “They also” — and here he 
paused for effect — “number twenty.” That was two more than 
other Asian elephants have, the norm being five toes on each 
front foot and four on each rear foot. According to Sanet Than- 
apradit, twenty-toed elephants are one in a thousand. The 
chances of one also being a white elephantare nigh miraculous. 

“This is the first white elephant since the first king of this dy- 
nasty to have twenty nails,” he went on. “You must look at them 
carefully.” But now that my eyes had adjusted and I could better 
see this figure looming in the pavilion’s darkness, I was trans- 
fixed by its entire presence. Pra Barom Nakkot, king-fed prince 
of princes, seemed to throw off a faint, pale aura. He was quite 
tall and unbelievably wide. Not lumpy wide or fat wide, though 
he was overfed — -just thick wide, adding to the impression of 
strength. His tusks were huge and asymmetric. But the»most 
startling feature was his eyes. They were pale green one mo- 
ment, pale blue the next time I looked, and wide open all the 
time, holding some unsettling ihessage in them. 

And he rocked, constantly, tugging on chains that bound his 
legs to the slightly raised platform on which he stood. Pony ex- 
plained that this bull was never let out of the pavilion. He re- 
ceived a bit of training as a youngster but none thereafter. Before 
Pony arrived, all the elephants had been somewhat neglected, 
because their traditional use in ceremonies had all but ceased in 
rapidly modernizing Thailand. Pony managed to reestablish 
programs of exercise and training for all the other white ele- 
phants. But the great bull had grown too big and wild and strong 
over the years. No one could regain control of him. 

So for decades now, he had been here on his raised dais, 
rocking, straining, surging back and forth with unfathomable 
power, as if someone had finally harnessed the tide. Surging, 
swaying, pulling this way and that, forever and a day — the 
heaven-sent king of elephants, born of clouds and rain, colored 
like the sacred lotus, a captured god but now an obsolete one. 



Thailand 353 

something out of a distant time and kingdom, his purpose all but 
forgotten. Swaying, surging, alone in his dark, goldcn-spired 
pavilion. Forever alone. Colossal. And very likely insane. That 
was the message in those eyes: madness. 

Divine madness. Thrice, I was told, this great mad elephant 
has trumpeted wildly in alarm. Each time, the king was in grave 
danger. Nobody wanted to talk about the specifics, but one 
threat was physical illness and another an attempted military 
coup. 

Sanet Thanapradit gave me all manner of details about what 
he considered to be the natural history of white elephants in their 
native forest habitat. He spoke of how they were stouter and 
stronger than any other elephants and destined to be leaders of 
their herds. Just as he said this, several elephants began roaring 
from their pavilions. The elephant metaphysician nodded know- 
ingly and, without missing a beat, added that even the mother 
and father of a white elephant were in awe of it, a little fright- 
ened. “They can see its natural dignity and leadership ability just 
by looking at it, and so can we. It should mate only with the 
same caste of white elephant and only in the forest.” 

The elephant metaphysician went on to tell me that “the 
Asian elephant has smaller features than the African elephant, 
but they are in balance — more harmonious .” Asian elephants are 
smarter than African ones, too, he thought. His loyalties even 
led him to insist that Thai elephants are more intelligent than 
Burmese elephants. I had recently read a book about elephants 
by a noted Thai expert from die forestry department. In it, he 
informed readers that elephants live an average of 100 years, 
which is the same antiquated misinformation Sanet Thanapradit 
passed along to me. Just as he tended to speak of white elephants 
as natural kings in die wild, the forestry department expert 
spoke of how elephant society relied upon “die strongest bull to 
defend and provide for the family by leading the search for fod- 
der, water, and shelter.” In another passage, the expert asserted 
that “a female is shorter, sleeker, with a bony face and a wee bit 
less dignity than die opposite sex.” AH of which reveals much 
about the psyche of male Homo sapiens and nothing about the 



354 Thb Fats of thb Elephant 


ecology or behavior of Elephas maximus, whose leadership is dis- 
tinctly matriarchal. 


Following the course of countries such as South Korea and Tai- 
wan, the constitutional monarchy of Thailand has lately meta- 
morphosed into one of the new economic tigers of Asia. 
Beginning as a source of cheap labor and raw materials, it rap- 
idly developed its own manufacturing base and attracted still 
more foreign investment. With Japan as its primary trading 
partner — -Japan accounted for 53 percent of the total foreign in- 
vestment as of 1990 — trade has grown prodigiously. For much 
of the last decade. Thailand’s annual increase in gross national 
product has been between 20 and 30 percent, the envy of any na- 
tion. The country has further prospered by developing a very 
savvy and efficient tourist industry. 

There was a parade grounds behind Parliament in Baifgkok 
where the king used to view all his white elephants every year on 
his birthday. Special songs were sung to his majesty. Dressed 
in traditional finery, the elephants screamed and trumpeted 
along — with some cueing from their trainers. When foreign dig- 
nitaries came to pay their respects to the king, his white ele- 
phants might be assembled for their viewing pleasure as well, 
just as in the old days. 

The annual viewing of the elephants ended in the mid-1970s. 
Bangkok’s traffic became too nasty to allow the giants to walk 
the three miles from their compound at the current royal palace 
to the old palace and Parliament area, where public events take 
place. Since nearly all their other ceremonial functions had al- 
ready gone by the wayside, the elephants’ training had slipped as 
well, which made it all the more difficult to get them past traffic 
and crowds. 

The last time the royal white elephants left their compound 
was in 1982, for the 200th anniversary of the Chakkri Dynasty. 
The last time a white elephant was found in the forest was in 
1978. The last naming ceremony took place that same year. Four 



Thailand 355 

of the elephants at the compound have never been through the 
ceremony and perhaps never will. Pony, who seemed vaguely 
embarrassed by all the trappings of the ancient white elephant 
tradition anyway, thought the best course for the future might 
be to release the animals back into the forest in a reserve. Prin- 
cess Serinthon loves to visit the white elephants, though, he said 
with a smile. How often? Well, once in a while. How often? 
Well, it had been a couple of years. Unwanted, unused, and 
costly to maintain, the giants had become figurative white 
elephants. 

The challenge of moving elephants through Bangkok is im- 
mediately apparent on almost any street. The routes have be- 
come a near-gridlock nightmare compounded of cars, buses, 
three-wheeled motorcabs called tuk-tuks, and motorcycles all 
snarling in a brown diesel haze. It takes longer to drive many 
places than to walk, but the air is so foul that you don’t care to 
go by foot. You should not try to meet with more than two or 
three people in any one day in Bangkok, because, given the 
traffic, you cannot possibly reach more than two or three differ- 
ent destinations. 

What has happened is that the economic boom has greatly in- 
creased car ownership and also lured tremendous numbers of ru- 
ral people to this capital city. High-rises proliferate. So do 
enormous slums, many of them resting on toxic wastelands next 
to industrial centers, where packs of homeless street urchins es- 
cape their bleak surroundings for short periods by sniffing glue. 
No plan to coordinate growth with transportation has ever bem 
effected. Speculators build willy-nilly. But who can wait? Bang- 
kok real estate continues to double in value almost yearly. Busi- 
ness of every kind is coining money. For the sake of efficiency, 
developers have taken to having competitors assassinated. Mur- 
der is a surprisingly common business practice in modem Thai- 
land. The usual technique is a drive-by shooting with the hit 
man mounted on a motorcycle. Prices run from a few hundred 
U.S. dollars for a relatively unimportant person to $40,000 for 
an influential businessman. You could buy a child outright for 
around $200, which is ten times what one costs in Sudan, but 



3 $6 The Fate of the Elephant 

still less than a fancy watch. This is the other side of the nation 
known as the Land of Smiles, whose people are so unfailingly 
warm and gracious in everyday encounters. 

Only a few years ago, mahouts used to ride their elephants to 
Bangkok during the premonsoon season of boiling heat, when 
they were out of work in the fields and forests. Once in the city, 
the animals strolled the streets, acting as what could be called 
doctor elephants. They allowed people to walk under their bel- 
lies three times for luck. Women walked uhdemeath to improve 
their fertility; pregnant ones did it to make childbearing easier. 
Meanwhile, the mahout collected fees and sold ivory trinkets 
such as little carved Buddhas and rings or bracelets made of el- 
ephant hair, also to bring luck. 

For 200 to 400 bhat — about U.S. $8 to $16 — the mahout 
might let someone pluck a fresh hair from the tail. The elephant 
would quiver, and the pore would bleed, but this, too, was sup- 
posed to bring luck. Sometimes the mahout remained mounted 
and gave people rides while an assistant sold the baubles and 
charms. Although doctor elephants may still be seen in the coun- 
tryside, they can no longer navigate the traffic of Bangkok any 
more than the sacred white elephants can. Besides, the nearest 
forage is now too far from the city center. And city hustlers have 
taken to robbing the mahouts who ride doctor elephants, know- 
ing they are likely to be carrying a fair amount of cash. 

About the only elephants seen in Bangkok other than those 
trapped at the palace are several at a park called the Rose Garden, 
where mini-re-creations of battles between Burma and Siam are 
carried out daily for tourists by the giants and their riders. And 
young elephants act as greeters at a couple of Bangkok’s myriad 
massage parlors. Poor rural villages in many parts of the country 
are all but empty of women between the ages of fifteen and 
thirty, because they have gone to the cities to work as prosti- 
tutes. Their services are arranged with families through brokers, 
and the pay scale is such that the practice amounts to indentured 
servitude, barely a step above slavery. It was recently reported 
that, in order to meet the ever-growing demands of the Thai sac 
trade, young women were being bought by the thousands from 



Thailand 357 

neighboring Laos, Burma, and southern China.. On the way 
back from the royal palace, a Thai friend tried to talk me into 
going for a B-course — a body massage in which the girl oils all 
of her own body and uses that to rub the client’s skin — at one 
well-known high-rise parlor. The place has 500 rooms and a 
prostitute in each one, giving new meaning to the term sex 
industry. 

I tried to imagine the great mad elephant from the palace 
breaking loose and smashing his way out of this city, clearing a 
path through traffic with his mighty trunk and trampling feet, 
and making his way back to the quietude of the woodlands 
where he grew up. 

But the highest of the highest of white elephants would be in 
for a grim surprise. The old woodlands are gone, having been 
swept away in an unbridled spasm of logging. The majority of 
the timber went to Japan, which was buying raw hardwood 
lumber as fast as Thailand could cut it — U.S. $88 million worth 
in 1989 alone. Fifty Thai companies made or exported hard- 
wood furniture, for which the United States was the major 
client, taking about a third of the production. 

Thailand still has some forests, but they are a far cry from the 
original jungles. They are cutover lands with brush and spindly 
second-growth trees that seem lush only to foreigners from tem- 
perate countries. Many logged hillsides lack even a second- 
growth forest. Some bum too often, either in fires that escape 
squatters practicing slash-and-burn agriculture or in dry-season 
blazes set by poachers to drive game. On thin or stony soil, re- 
peated burning can eventually lead to a monoculture of scraggly, 
fire-resistant dipterocarp trees with an understory of annual 
weeds. Other hillsides lack second-growth forest because they 
are so steep that, once laid bare by cutting, they keep eroding 
away in monsoon rains. Elsewhere, the complex native forest 
has been replaced with a monoculture of commercial tree species 
such as pine, teak, eucalyptus, or rubber. 

With encouragement from the World Bank, Asian Develop- 
ment Bank, and other international organizations, eucalyptus, 
an exotic from Australia, has been widely planted throughout 



The Fatb op the Elephant 


Asia's tropical areas. Planners see it as a fast-growing, hardy 
source of small lumber and fuel for cooking and heating. Euca- 
lyptus does thrive on tropical soils and proves highly resistant to 
diseases and pests due to its volatile oils. About the only creature 
that can digest eucalyptus leaves is the koala, which evolved 
along with the plant. Decaying leaves virtually sterilize the 
ground underneath the tree. As far as native Asian wildlife is 
concerned, a stand of eucalyptus is about as useful as an arctic ice 
pack. Thai farmers have protested against widespread eucalyp- 
tus introductions and started hacking the trees down because no- 
body can grow crops or graze livestock in association with such 
stands either. Yet the government keeps planting more eucalyp- 
tus. When the bureaucrats tote up board feet of wood produced 
per acre on marginal soils, eucalyptus looks good, and that is as 
far as they seem able to figure. 

Again with the help of the World Bank, a consistent promul- 
gator of inappropriate technology and misguided development 
schemes, Thailand’s annual rubber production increased rough- 
ly 400 percent — from 270,000 tons to more than a million tons — 
between 1975 and 1990. Once established, a rubber plantation 
covers the hillsides with a robust' green cloak. The trouble is that 
this canopy of closely planted trees is so dense and unvarying 
that little grows underneath in its shade. What does pop up is 
knocked back by herbicides. Here again, the soil has no ground- 
cover to anchor it and, thus, remains vulnerable to erosion in 
heavy rains. 

In 1989, a series of heavy monsoon storms swept across the 
recently denuded Thai countryside, causing floods and mud- 
slides that devastated villages (40,000 homes destroyed) and 
killed hundreds of people. The toll was high enough and wide- 
spread enough to finally shock the government into action. A 
hastily passed law banned all logging throughout the nation. 

A strong measure indeed. However, by the time it went into 
effect, few trees of commercial size were left to cut anyway. An- 
ticipating the ban, logging companies had sent men with chain 
saws to work seven days a week getting out almost every last 
tree. Some worked through the night under lights. A few Thai 



Thailand 359 

logging companies then shut down. Others moved on with their 
heavy machinery and the biggest working elephants into 
Burma. Eighteen Thai companies had set up concessions with 
the repressive military regime there to begin stripping the jun- 
gles, believed to harbor anywhere from 3000 to 10,000 wild el- 
ephants. This wild population was already heavily exploited for 
ivory and to replenish Burma’s elephant work force, estimated 
at 5000 to 6000, the largest of any Asian country. 

In some areas of Burma, the Thai timber companies found 
they had to pay bribes not only to military officials but to rebel 
ethnic groups, such as the Karen tribe — not to mention the local 
warlords who control the drug trade. The real cash crop in many 
parts of this region — the Golden Triangle — is the poppy, tapped 
to produce opium and heroin. Just the same, ivory fever was 
high, and teak fever had begun to resemble it. One logging truck 
rumbling back across the border from Burma toward a mill in 
Thailand would be laden with logs worth tens of thousands of 
U.S. dollars in retail lumber. A logging company executive near 
Lampang in northern Thailand was blown up by anti-personnel 
mines in a hit thought to have been arranged by a rival timber 
baron. 

The Thais were also arranging timber deals with relatively 
undeveloped Laos. Formerly known as Lane Xang, Land of a 
Million Elephants, it harbors somewhere between 2000 and 4000 
wild elephants and fewer than 1000 domesticated ones. Wildlife 
trade expert Esmond Bradley Martin reports that 1.2 guns per 
square mile can now be found in Laos, and the illegal wildlife 
trade is burgeoning. Markets openly display elephant meat and 
ivory, horns of Sumatran and possibly Javan rhinos, and an ar- 
ray of products from other rare species. Hunted year-round, the 
once rich community of birds and mammals is becoming in- 
creasingly depauperate. The 1990 World Resources study, pre- 
pared with United Nations support, found eleven countries 
responsible for 82 percent of the world’s tropical deforestation. 
They included India, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and 
Vietnam. 

While in Bangkok, I kept pursuing applications to visit both 



3<So The Fate of the Elephant 

Laos and Vietnam. Neither country looked as if it was going to 
grant me access before still more months went by, so I would 
probably have to skip them altogether. In the meantime, 
though, I learned some interesting information from a sixty- 
year-old Vietnamese entomologist named Vo Quy. In the early 
1940s, before fighting began with the French, Vietnam’s 128,000 
square miles were 46 percent forested. By 1975 that figure had 
fallen to 29 percent, and it was currently 20 percent. But the 
really astonishing statistic was that 40 percent of the countryside 
was essentially barren wasteland. 

The chief causes were the spraying of Agent Orange and 
other defoliants and saturation bombing by the United States 
during its war against Vietnam. Twenty-five million bomb cra- 
ters pattern the Vietnamese earth. Some are at least big enough 
to be useful as fish ponds, said Vo Quy. About 715,000 acres of 
forest had been knocked down by U.S. bulldozers, which cut 
swaths along roads and canals to minimize the chances of am- 
bush. • 

Some of this landscape simply was not growing back. Other 
sections grew coarse Imperata grass that, ungrazed, turned rank 
and unpalatable and choked dut all other growth. In addition, 
Vietnam was itself cutting 450,000 acres of forest per year. Vo 
Quy was leading a campaign to replant at least as much as was 
being cut and seeking international support to help restore the 
tom and poisoned forests of his country. I have talked to Amer- 
ican veterans of that war who bombed or machine-gunned ele- 
phants on sight, because they were used by the enemy to 
transport men and materiel. Today, Vietnam is thought to sus- 
tain perhaps 1500 to 2000 elephants in the wild and another 500 
to 700 in captivity. 

In Thailand, domesticated elephants numbered in the tens of 
thousands around the turn of the century; one source puts the 
figure at 100,000, but that seems inflated. Most tame elephants 
in the ancient kingdom served for transport and as draft animals 
for the fields. They were always available for hauling logs when 
needed, but the formation of a massive work force for timbering 
was mainly a consequence of the colonial era, as epitomized by 



Thailand 361 

the Burmese tales of Colonel J. H. Williams, who wrote Ban- 
doola and Elephant Bill. 

By 1965, the figure for domesticated elephants in Thailand — 
reasonably accurate since all such elephants now had to be legally 
registered — was just over 11,000. Current figures are between 
4000 and 5000, and, with the logging ban, the majority are un- 
employed. Once again, elephants were used to help bring about 
their own demise, both in the wild and in the logging industry. 
By contrast, Thailand’s human population had increased tenfold 
since 1850, from 5 million to more than 50 million. 

The deadly floods and mudslides that prompted the ban were 
over by the time of my visit. Instead, while I was traveling the 
countryside, it was suffering from one of the worst water short- 
ages in its history. Yet the cause was the same. Without intact 
forests and humus layers in the soil to sponge up rainfall and re- 
lease it later in a steady flow, all the monsoon precipitation had 
rushed off the hillsides at once and continued on to the sea, leav- 
ing nothing for later on. Crops as well as lives had been lost in 
the floods. Now they were being lost to drought. 

This pattern of aridity and falling water tables in the wake of 
deforestation was becoming evident throughout much of Asia. 
According to the Asian Development Bank, the forest cover of 
the region as a whole had been reduced from 52 percent of the 
total land area in 1944 to 19 percent in 1990 and was shrinking 
faster than ever. Another pattern seen across Asia was an attempt 
to solve the crisis not by controlling logging but by building 
more dams to store water. Flooding of rich, vital lowland hab- 
itat and disruption of migratory patterns due to dam construc- 
tion had become one of the leading threats to wildlife. 

The results of a fast profit for the timber companies in Thai- 
land were hunger and thirst for thousands of people. Plus social 
unrest as groups fought over rights to what water was left and 
accused one another of ruining stream flows through upstream 
diversion. Plus the cost of dam-building sometime in the future. 
Plus the cost in terms of wildlife habitat and arable bottomland 
lost to reservoirs. 

And illegal logging openly continued inside forest reserves. 



362 The Fatb of the Elephant 

Like many of Thailand’s corporations, the timber companies are 
controlled by a web of high-ranking military officials, aristo- 
cratic Thai families, and Chinese banking and merchant fami- 
lies. This elite in turn holds sway over civil authorities, and, as a 
result, true reform is not easy to enforce. 

It was discovered that the company awarded a major tree- 
planting contract, Suan Kitti Reforestation, had been cutting 
down the remnants of forest instead, profiting from timber sales 
at the same time that it took money for nonexistent replanting 
work. Newspapers reported that Suan Kitti had been hired be- 
cause its owner was a friend of the minister of agriculture, Major 
General Sanan Kachomprasat, who oversaw the forestry de- 
partment. If the press becomes too diligent in exposing such 
schemes, military leaders begin talking about shutting down 
newspapers in the interest of maintaining national pride and na- 
tional security. 

Thailand has dozens of wildlife sanctuaries and national 
parks, the oldest of which was established just two decides ago. 
But they are rife with illegal timber cutting, encroachment by 
squatters (between i million and 1.5 million of them occupy 
slightly more than 1 million *acres of forest reserve land), opium 
growing, and poaching — the primary cause of elephant deaths 
in the country. Bull elephants are shot for their tusks. Cows are 
sometimes shot so the poachers can catch the babies. The young 
animals are sold through the illegal market to zoos, circuses, and 
private hobbyists who, increasingly, want to keep elephants as a 
status symbol. Thailand has also become the main market for 
baby elephants caught in neighboring Burma, Laos, and Kam- 
puchea and smuggled across the border. Some hill tribes hunt 
the giants for meat. People growing crops in or around the re- 
serves also kill elephants to keep them from damaging fields. 
And wealthy young Thais from the city sometimes go shooting 
in the reserves for sport, knowing their family connections will 
keep them out of serious trouble if they get caught. 

Wardens who interfere with Thailand’s lucrative illegal wild- 
life trade have been harassed and murdered. They are poorly 
paid and equipped to begin with, averaging about U.S. $80 per 



Thailand 363 

month in pay. In keeping with the pattern seen in so many coun- 
tries, money generated by conservation through park visitation 
and other forms of tourism does not go back into conservation. 
It is not used to benefit and encourage wildlife or wardens or lo- 
cal people in any substantial way. The agencies charged with 
protecting beleaguered wildlife continue to receive only token 
support from the government. At best. Saving the living world 
is simply a low priority. Its relation to the quality of human ex- 
istence is not clearly perceived, in part because the true profit/ 
loss figures for certain types of development are never factored 
in. Which is why the Thai government has lately shown an in- 
terest in opening some parks to logging and to more hydro- 
power projects. 

Even if the reserves in Thailand were splendidly run, they are 
much too small and isolated to be effective in conserving large 
animals over the long term. Estimates put the number of wild 
elephants in Thailand at just 1300 to 2000. Most of them are al- 
ready focused around areas listed as protected, and not one of 
those areas is sufficient to sustain a genetically viable elephant 
population through the centuries. 

Perhaps the nearest to being an effective habitat is the Huai 
Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in western Thailand. Though 
just 1000 square miles in size, it is the largest stretch of protected 
wildland in all of Southeast Asia. Situated near undeveloped 
lands in Burma and buffered by adjoining Thai national forest 
lands that are still somewhat intact, it supports a varied fauna 
from wild water buffalos and Malayan tapirs to tigers and mar- 
bled cats. At the opposite end of the scale is the Khao Chamao 
Reserve, which had exactly seven elephants at last count. A few 
protected areas are barely big enough to picnic in, much less har- 
bor giants, and picnicking is in fact what they are mainly used 
for. 

The concept of wildlands as key elements in the struggle to 
preserve biological, diversity and functioning ecosystems has not 
yet penetrated very far into the consciousness of the Thai public. 
Exactly where their consciousness stands in regard to nonhuman 
species to begin with is something I would not venture to guess. 



364 The Fate of the Elephant 


Sections of the Thai countryside have terrible problems with 
rodents, in part because the areas are almost devoid of snakes. 
The reason they are devoid of snakes is that people catch and sell 
every one they see. And the reason they do that is because the 
blood of live snakes, mixed with other potions, is considered a 
good tonic and aphrodisiac. Live snake blood is a favorite drink 
for those on their way to visit the local massage emporium. 
Large quantities of snakes are also exported to China and Taiwan 
for the same purpose. 

In Bangkok, people can still order a feast with an Asiatic black 
bear or a sun bear as the centerpiece, bawling and screaming as 
it is slowly roasted alive over coals before the assembled guests. 
Or a restaurant will cater one of those affairs, known throughout 
much of the Orient, at which the top of a live monkey’s skull is 
removed and the primate watches the diners scoop out its brains 
to eat. We are talking hard-core gourmet fare here in the Land of 
Smiles. Some Chinese dealers had orders out in Thailand for el- 
ephant penises. Shooting elephants for their tusks seems almost 
wholesome by comparison. 

In every major town, and Bangkok in particular, ivory shops 
are a common sight. During m/visit, sales were off by about 50 
percent, as they had been shortly before the CITES ban, but the 
goods were still moving. Dealers were keeping the prices fairly 
high, though they were more than ready to negotiate. A lot of 
sculptures and jewelry that looked like exceptional bargains 
were actually carved from bone; some were made of a more so- 
phisticated fake material concocted of ground fish bone and 
animal bone in a plastic matrix. Ivory advertised as legally ob- 
tained from Africa before the international ban was coming 
from elephants poached in Burma and smuggled in along with 
animal skins, gold, and drugs. Carvings advertised as tradi- 
tional Thai pieces supporting local artisans were clearly mass- 
produced Hong Kong products: cut-rate netsuke, Buddhas, 
Shiva, potbellied Chinese gods of luck, and copulating figu- 
rines. And as ever, when I asked dealers if I could take any of 
these ivory wares back into the United States, 1 was told: No 
problem, my friend. 

Only one fellow strayed from the standard lie that customs 



Thailand 36$ 

would let me take everything through except the largest tusks. 
He assured me that I could take them as well. Foreign buyers 
were wary, but European tourists still took plenty of small 
pieces, the dealers said. Much of the consumption of larger 
ivory work in Thailand was domestic these days, fueled by the 
new wealth washing around the country. Rich Thai business- 
men wanted whole carved tusks. Ivory handles for pistols were 
all the rage among the military-industrial elite. 

When a new business is established in Bangkok, the owner 
may set aside a small space nearby and build a public shrine in 
the hope that it will bring blessings upon the enterprise. There 
is one between the 7-1 1 and McDonald’s stores in the heart of 
town. Farther down Rama I Avenue, past the banks, the trading 
company offices, the boutiques selling boots and belts made of 
elephant hide, the ivory shops, and the venereal disease clinics, 
the owners of a department store built a shrine on a corner by a 
busy intersection. The miniature pagoda roof houses an image 
of Brahma, with four faces and six arms. But people call it the 
Erawan shrine, Erawan being the Thai version of Ganesh. 

The shrine’s name apparendy comes from the custom of leav- 
ing offerings of carved elephants as thanks for answered prayers. 
This shrine’s reputation for bestowing boons upon worshippers 
must be well deserved, for there are herds of assorted elephants 
crowded into its courtyard: huge pachyderms of stone or wood 
left by wealthy donors and countless small wooden elephant fig- 
urines, which are collected from the shrine after a decent interval 
and sold again by vendors outside on the streets. 

What made the place special to me was the practice worship- 
pers have of pressing inch-square pieces of gold foil onto the 
larger elephant statues. In gilding the elephant, each person gains 
a touch of merit. Nothing holds the thin foil on except friction 
and oils from the donor’s fingertips. After a while, the foil begins 
to loosen at the edge and then come free. Yet instead of fidling to 
the ground, it often wafts slowly upward, carried along like a 
seed pod on a rising air current generated by rows of burning 
candles and incense in the courtyard* 1 remember watching the 
golden offerings to the elephant go floating past a troupe of tra- 
ditional Thai dancers performing in full golden regalia-*-another 



366 The Fate of the Elephant 


form of thanks from a wealthy worshipper — and the wreaths 
and necklaces of marigolds hung from the shrine; past the hur- 
rying pedestrians, who paused to fold hands against forehead 
and make a brief bow toward the shrine, and the traffic jamming 
by in its wreath of acrid brown fumes; up past the department 
store’s concrete sides, past the steel skeleton of the higher tower 
being constructed across the street, and finally into the dazzle of 
afternoon light filtered through smoggy, humid, 105° F air to 
make their way alone to the heavens. 

And I kept wondering: What do all these people praying think 
about live elephants and jungles and the miraculous natural 
world out there somewhere? Urban, rural, or wild, survival or 
extinction — I suppose it is all one to Brahma, and that is a point 
I should probably consider more often in my musings. Maybe 
things are supposed to turn out the way they are. Maybe what- 
ever happens is natural; I’ve heard that argument often enough. 
But it strikes me as too fatalistic. If we are supposed to be con- 
tent with events as they unfold, why are so many people stop- 
ping to beg Brahma to intercede in their fate? 

Richard Lair, an American biologist, lived for years in Thai- 
land and collected a great deal of information throughout Asia 
on both wild animals and cultural attitudes about them. He told 
me of visiting a part of Laos where the people, being serious 
Buddhists and therefore opposed to killing, justified catching 
fish by saying they were saving them from drowning. Richard 
even saw a man lay his catch carefully upon a clean white cloth 
and then, unable to bring himself to club them on the head and 
end things quickly, begin playing a flute to ease their suffering as 
they Hopped and gasped their life away. 

While the glittering foil floated upward in the evening air, I 
kept mulling over such things, and the harder I tried to find 
meaning in them, the less sense they made. Billboards along the 
avenue advertising current Thai movies showed warriors bran- 
dishing guns and heroine/sex goddesses wearing bandoliers 
across their nearly naked chests and bodies being blown up and 
flying through a sky full of flames. In a way they seemed little 
changed from pictures made a couple of thousand years ago to 
illustrate religious epics. 



Thailand 367 

Whenever I returned from the Thai countryside to a hotel that 
had a television, I usually flipped through the channels to look 
for a news station. Sooner or later, on my way around the dial, 
I would turn to a scene in which a defenseless woman waited 
alone in a darkened house or alley while some menacing figure 
approached to maim and murder her. This would almost always 
be a show made in America. Back home, this sort of program 
was so pervasive that I scarcely paid attention. But here, seeing 
it through the freshened eyes of someone who had been travel* 
ing in faraway places, I would start wondering about the cos- 
mology of my own culture. 

I am trying not to be a tiresome moralist. My purpose is to 
remind those who want to save species that we are dealing with 
some terribly contrary impulses deep within ourselves. Some- 
how, we have to come to terms with this dichotomy, this mix- 
ture of destructiveness and compassion in the human soul, and 
figure out a way to strengthen and expand the nurturing side. 

The fact that Buddha delivered this message an awfully long 
time ago does not seem to have interfered with Thailand’s cur- 
rent transformation into a society that is consuming its wild 
places and creatures. It gets back to the unsurpassed ability of 
humans to see what we want to see, I decided at the Erawan 
shrine. The only reality I know that is not highly relativistic and 
fickle, because it is not fabricated from human cultural needs, 
lies in the workings of natural systems. 1 lit a candle and made a 
few prayers of my own. I left a couple of small carved elephants 
as a sort of advance thanks, then took off for the north of the 
country to see for myself what remained of those systems. 


A century ago, claims one source, northern Thailand had 20,000 
tame elephants working just to transport materials, plying ma- 
jor trade routes and village trails alike. Brahma alone knows how 
many wild ones dwelled in the thick forests. When I thought of 
the region, I envisioned wats, or spired temples, poking through 
die jungle vines and mists. One of the most famous wats is Suan 
Dok, founded in the sixth century a.d. upon a site where an el- 



368 Thb Fate of thb Elephant 

ephant bearing die remains of Buddha supposedly stopped to 
sleep. Buddhist monks at some wats still ride to their ordination 
ceremony on the backs of elephants. The city of Chiang Mai, 
Thailand’s ancient capital, plays a prominent part in the northern 
region’s remote and exotic allure. Travel agents promote it as a 
world half-forgotten by time. 

They promote it so well that more than 2 million tourists are 
funneled through Chiang Mai every year. Among the most 
memorable sights and sounds are those of commercial jetliners 
landing or taking off almost continuously. Televisions in the ho- 
tels blare Thai game shows, and lounge singers offer renditions 
of Frank Sinatra and Barry Manilow. The downtown area is less 
a rural market than a mall, offering the standard assortment 
of cheap watches, jewelry, imitation designer clothing, tennis 
shoes, rock ’n’ roll cassette tapes, cameras, Fuji film, and por- 
traits of Buddha and Elvis. Only on the periphery cm you 
sometimes find more traditional offerings, such as tethered 
monkeys and pangolins awaiting execution to provide a meal. 

Ads such as one I noticed in the New Yorker for furniture made 
of wood “from the mountainous jungles of northern Thailand” 
foster the myth that plenty of steamy, untamed rainforests can 
yet be found around places like Chiang Mai. But the mountain- 
sides 1 walked were all second growth, and the second growth 
was being cut down and burned and tilled to produce fields. 
People and traps and snares and pits and trip wires tied to the 
triggers of guns were everywhere, and the countryside was vir- 
tually devoid of wild animals. 

The Woodland Zoo in Seattle has a Southeast Asia Tropical 
Forest exhibit with 750 trees, 2300 shrubs, and 600 clumps of 
bamboo within 4.6 acres. It also has a re-creation of a Thai ele- 
phant logging camp, complete with classic peaked pagoda roofs 
on the buildings. As the elephants pull, lift, and sort logs, zoo- 
goers get a sense of their great strength and intelligence, while 
the captive giants get a bit of physical and mental exercise. 

The interesting thing is that tourists who go all the way to 
northern Thailand will see the same simulation, only with less 
diverse vegetation. Elephant camps that put on displays for tour- 



Thailand 369 

ists have proliferated around Chiang Mai. Visitors pay to watch 
mahouts go through an abbreviated version of a working day at 
a logging camp, bathing and feeding the animals and then put- 
ting them through their paces in a log yard. In their brochures, 
several of these businesses suggest that they are actually training 
centers for elephants that go on to work in logging. But the 
truth is that the only job available in northern Thailand for an 
elephant that used to work at real logging, back when the hills 
had real forests, is at a tourist camp. 

“It is better than logging. The pay is good, and the work is 
much easier — for me and for my elephant,” I was told by a ma- 
hout named Dang at the Young Elephants Training Center. He 
and his assistant, a Karen boy called Song, were on a break from 
giving rides to tourists after the logging show. More visitors, 
mostly French, German, and Japanese, were lining up for the 
next performance. Dang’s enthusiasm reflected the fact that his 
elephant was a female in her fifties. She would not have brought 
in money hauling heavy teak much longer, but she was gentle 
and perfectly suited for giving rides. 

Manas Yaviraj, manager of the camp, came over to join us. 
“Where else can you put your old granny elephants and gay ones 
and find work for them?” he joked, pointing to a sidor, or tusk- 
less male, nearby. Although he referred to the animal as a ho- 
mosexual male, he noted that it never actually tried to mate and 
never came into musth. 

It was a pleasant camp. The more adventurous tourists were 
given pith helmets and taken for a ride through the surrounding 
woodlands and along a stream so that they really did get a feel 
for the elephant-back life of old Thailand. Other camps in the 
area took the experience a step further, providing trips of several 
days by elephant through the hilly countryside, a challenging 
and stimulating experience. So I know I run a risk of sounding 
like a killjoy by pointing out how artfully people were being sold 
an image. They expected a frontier with jungles where tigers still 
stalked and logging elephants still toiled, and Thai entrepreneurs 
quickly arranged one — minus the tigers. 

I have nothing against illusions, but it would have been far 



ITo The Fatb of the Elephant 


simpler and saner — and ultimately just as profitable, if not more 
so — to have perpetuated the real jungle, which was right there 
at hand such a short while ago. At the very least, some of the 
money being coined by the tourist industry could be channeled 
back toward conservation. 

From the limited field research on wild elephants in Southeast 
Asia, it appears that, somewhat like Africa’s forest elephants, 
they prefer monocots in their diet, seeking out certain families 
of herbaceous plants, palms, and grasses/ including bamboo. 
And as in African jungles, the elephants both create openings 
within the forest canopy through their feeding and enlarge ex- 
isting ones, such as around salt licks. Wild bovids, various deer 
species, pigs, primates, and a number of birds qualify as second- 
ary feeders. They rely to some extent upon elephant-made open- 
ings dominated by monocots and upon seeds, branches, and 
leaves dropped by feeding elephant herds. At the same time, the 
elephants act as key dispersers of a significant number of tree 
species, from wild mangoes, with their lozenge-shaped seefls, to 
certain figs and members of the Irvingiaceae family. 

Southeast Asia’s native forests contain some of the highest 
measures of plant diversity recorded anywhere. Portions of 
southern Thailand and neighboring Malaysia are matched only 
by sections of the Peruvian Amazon. Some measure of that 
splendor and variety is the result of having elephants in the wild- 
land community. As in India, indigenous forest-dwelling people 
are part of that community and equally at risk. Thailand’s Se- 
mang people, who hunt with blowpipes and spears, are one ex- 
ample. Laos, which has a relatively small human population, 
harbors from eighty to ninety distinct ethnic groups. 

isisisisisisisisisisisisis 

I traveled through mile after mile of cutover, burned, and 
beaten-looking landscapes east of Chiang Mai with Choowit 
Mahamontri of the Forest Industry Organization (FIO). He 
used to work in a cooperative project with the Japanese, who set 
up an agency to instruct Thais in methods for building roads and 



Thailand 371 

logging by cable on especially steep terrain. But the Japanese 
pulled out as soon as the logging ban went into effect. Choowit’s 
new job was to round up squatters on forest lands. 

Choowit summed up a pan- Asian problem with this obser- 
vation: “Whenever you build a logging road, you build a path- 
way for colonization by migrating farmers, who clear the land 
for their plots.” Northern Thailand has more than a dozen ethnic 
groups of hill people: Meo, Lissu, and Hmong in their colorful 
traditional dress, Wah Chinese, Karen tribals, and so on. A large 
percentage of them are homeless, displaced by political upheav- 
als in the region, by overpopulation, and by deforestation and 
soil depletion on traditional lands; needless to say, all three fac- 
tors are closely related. The upshot is a massive increase in squat- 
ting by a floating population drawn to whatever unclaimed land 
is most accessible at the moment. 

“The first time we catch squatters, we just warn,” Choowit 
said. “How can you throw them away in jail? These are families 
with children. Many are refugees. They are very poor. We have 
a new program to try to keep them in one place by offering 
housing and schools. Also a job. The job is replanting the for- 
est.” But they don’t plant forests, really. They put in those 
orderly, fertilizer-dosed, pesticide-laced rows of teak, exotic eu- 
calyptus, and fast-growing pines that are the antithesis of the 
tangled natural richness nature once fashioned on the same spot. 

A practical strategy for at least getting the maximum use out 
of a cutover area is to let local villagers or squatters cultivate 
crops such as maize, soybeans, squash, and tea beneath new 
plantations of trees for the first three years or so, until the can- 
opy begins to shade out the understory. The problem is that 
squatters come to view whatever property they till as their own. 
They may organize and lobby to win legal title to part or all of 
it. Where there are enough of them to represent a political force, 
they are frequently successful. 

On occasion, the FIO program that Choowit helps administer 
gives squatters a small plot of forest reserve acreage outright to 
call their own. It is part of the inducement to settle down and 
husband land properly. But Choowit acknowledged that the 



yj 2 The Fate of the Elephant 


squatters sometimes turn around and sell the piece off to wealthy 
landowners. For that matter, he admitted, influential people en- 
courage peasants to squat on forest, park, and wildlife sanctuary 
lands, agitate to win title to the land, and then sell it to the well- 
to-do and well-connected. Landless peasants become pawns in 
their schemes to dismantle reserves and privatize what were in- 
tended to be public resources. 

Approaching the hillsides near Lampang, we stopped to eat at 
a roadside restaurant and learned that a local man had been 
caught logging illegally within a forest reserve just the day be- 
fore. The police confiscated the working elephant, but the ani- 
mal’s owner somehow got the mahout to take sole blame for the 
log poaching. So the police sold the elephant back to the owner. 
The cops were 50,000 bhat — U.S. $2000 — richer, the owner 
was free to try stealing timber somewhere else, and the mahout, 
a low-paid wage earner, was in jail. 

After lunch, Choowit took me to meet Dr. Preecha Phong- 
kum, chief veterinarian for 128 elephants maintained iif the 
Lampang district by the FIO. The animals were a legacy from 
the days just past when the government both contracted out tim- 
ber sales to private companies tfnd did some logging with its 
own employees. Despite the countrywide logging ban, a small 
amount of work remained, such as cleaning up fallen trees be- 
fore annual fires burned them, clearing old logging waste prior 
to replanting, and some very selective cutting of trees. It was no- 
where near enough to keep all the elephants busy, but it was 
something to do until Dr. Preecha and the FIO figured out the 
future of their working elephants and the associated elephant 
training school — the real training school, not the tourist replica. 

Confirming what I had heard from several sources in South- 
east Asia, the FIO mahouts said that an elephant mother is as- 
sisted at birth by another female, who acts as a midwife, helping 
lower the newborn infant to the ground and tearing the amniotic 
sac with her trunk and forefoot. Thais have been practicing a 
good deal of captive breeding since wild capture was outlawed 
during the early 1970s, so they have had plenty of opportunities 
for direct observation. Still, I am not certain whether or not el- 



Thailand 373 

ephant midwifery is the norm or an occasional act that has some- 
how been interpreted as standard behavior. Nor have I any idea 
whether or how often it occurs among wild Asian elephants. To 
the extent that it does occur, it represents a rare relationship 
among animals and yet another similarity between elephants and 
humans. 

At the FIO training center, a youngster was allowed to nurse 
for three years. Sometime during its fourth or fifth year, de- 
pending upon how well the mother accepted the change, it was 
separated from her and put on a diet of grass. Beginning at age 
five, then, the youngster learned to associate with its mahout in- 
stead, accept a chain, and obey fundamental commands. Oddly, 
Dr. Preecha insisted that baby elephants have no innate fear of 
snakes and have to be taught to avoid them, even though snake- 
bite is a noteworthy cause of death among young elephants. 
This contradicted the observations of other Thai mahouts, who 
told me elephants naturally fear both snakes and the foot-long 
millipedes seen in the forests. 

By age ten, the elephant was practicing dragging logs, and by 
age fifteen, it was ready to work with a mahout. Some began to 
learn how to work in tandem as well. Yet, as in India, the ele- 
phants would not begin really laboring hard until age twenty- 
five, by which time an animal was expected to understand and 
execute about twenty-four specific commands with little urging 
by the mahout. After age forty, it started to get less demanding 
physical tasks, and after age fifty, it was headed for retirement. 

Anthrax used to be a scourge before regular vaccinations were 
available, noted Dr. Preecha. The disease is transmitted by a bit- 
ing tabanid fly, which also infects elephants with surra, a try- 
panosome that causes a high, often fatal, fever, somewhat 
similar to malaria in humans. The main health problem on a 
day-to-day basis was simple wounds caused by thorns, broken 
branches, and mahouts’ hooks penetrating the elephants’ skin, 
which is rather thin in many places. The skin surface heals over, 
encapsulating a wound, which ferments and develops into an 
abscess. 

« 

I watched several large males put to work hauling trees that 



374 The Fate of the Elephant 

had been felled earlier. Each had a harness padded with a sort of 
saddle made from the soft bark of the bombax tree, Tetrameles 
nudiflora, mainly to protect the area over the spine, which has lit- 
tle natural cushion. A good elephant man works his elephant 
three days on and two off, the mahouts told me, and in ioo° F or 
hotter weather like this, they worked only in the mornings. The 
elephants sweat, of all places, around the cuticles by their toe- 
nails, they said. Only a man badly in need of money would try 
to work his elephant any longer. Besides, k was so hot and dry 
just before the rainy season that any tree cut would likely crack 
and split upon hitting the ground. 

Because of the elephant’s need for rest, it could no longer 
compete with the ever larger and more efficient bulldozers and 
mechanical log skidders available. Besides, an elephant can haul 
only about half its weight in the first place, comparatively less 
than a human. When handling a lot of huge trees from a pristine 
jungle, as elephants still were in Burma, they had to operate in 
tandem or in threes, whereas one modern megamachine could 
do the job. Still, nothing could match an elephant for operating 
on steep slopes. Perhaps that was the working elephant’s future, 
mused Dr. Preecha — to specialize in difficult terrain. But for the 
past five years he had undertaken a program to breed elephants 
specifically for a different purpose: working on the plantations 
of teak and other commercial trees that are replacing the natural 
forest in region after region. His goal was to create smaller ele- 
phants. They could maneuver more easily between the planta- 
tion rows during cutting and thinning operations, he reasoned. 
The cultivated trees would never grow very large before they 
would be cut, so the elephants did not have to grow big either. 
Better yet, reduced size made them easier to control, and they 
required less feed, the veterinarian explained. 

A human-bred pygmy elephant — what a remarkable state of 
affairs. Oh, yes, added Dr. Preecha: the elephants he was breed- 
ing would also be tuskless. Ivory-less, pygmy plantation ele- 
phants. 

The FIO camp turned out its elephants to graze at night drag- 
ging an eighty-foot chain and wearing a collar with a bell, tra- 



Thailand 375 

ditionally made of resonant wood. Mahouts told the same 
stories as I had heard in India of an elephant occasionally coiling 
up the chain and throwing the thing over its back so the chain 
would leave less of a trail and of stuffing the bell with mud or 
clasping it with the trunk to keep from making noise. Usually, 
though, the giant was easy to find. For the past several years, 
Thai elephant owners had experienced a growing problem of 
thieves tracking down animals in the dead of night. After chain- 
ing the animals and binding them tightly to a tree, or stunning 
them with electric current from a portable generator, they sawed 
off the tusks — usually as close to the jaw as they could. This sev- 
ers the tooth nerve that extends roughly a third of the tusk’s 
length, and the resulting infection can travel back along the 
nerve into the brain, killing the elephant. Some poachers killed 
the tame bulls outright to get at the ivory. 

For a while, the FIO mahouts took to keeping their elephants 
company twenty-four hours a day, sleeping out in the bush with 
them. But this was a demanding chore, for elephants sleep no 
more than three or four hours nightly and spend the rest of the 
time feeding and traveling. Even when hobbled, they can cover 
a fair amount of ground. And mahouts are not that dedicated to 
their animals. Dr. Preecha pointed out — not in this day and age. 
In olden times, being the mahout of a war elephant was a re- 
spected role; but a logging mahout never enjoyed particularly 
high status, and the job had been less desirable than ever in recent 
years. Hungry young men from the hill tribes made the best can- 
didates; educated Thais had little interest. 

“Our mahouts have motorcycles and a house some distance 
from the forest camp. They want to go home at night and watch 
television and videos and be closer to the action in town,” 
shrugged the veterinarian. “Mahouts don’t know their animals 
as well as mahouts did when everyone lived in one camp out in 
the forest. Our men cannot read the nuances of their elephants’ 
behavior, and they are more likely to get killed as a result. With 
128 elephants, we average three deaths of mahouts per year and 
many injuries. One elephant in our camp has taken the lives of 
three mahouts by itself.” 



376 The Fate op thb Elephant 


I had heard of one in Burma that killed seventeen men. An- 
other, in northern Thailand, was said to have killed thirty, prob- 
ably making it the record-holder as serial murderer elephants go. 
Some elephants, it seems, just cannot be tamed. The toughest 
bulls in Burma are reportedly worked with a spear man walking 
along on each side, brandishing the Southeast Asian equivalent 
of the Indian long pole, or cherya hole. “Once in a while, acci- 
dents happen despite all precautions, because females are giving 
off infrasound, saying ‘I am sexually receptive,’ and the males 
begin ignoring the mahouts,” noted Dr. Preecha. 

Given the various difficulties of staying with elephants round 
the clock, the final solution to the problem of tusk thieves for the 
FIO and private owners alike has been to cut off the tusks of 
tame bulls before the outlaws do. This may save the animals’ 
lives. And, once the owner gets used to the idea, he realizes he 
has a small fortune from ivory already in hand, as well as an el- 
ephant that is still a valuable piece of property. If patient, he will 
have another opportunity later on, for the tusk regrows at the 
rate of an inch or two a year in mature animals. Fewer than one 
in ten domesticated bulls left in Thailand still carried its tusks in 
1990. / 


As in much of northern Thailand, the elephants of the FIO camp 
respond to commands in three main languages: Thai, Karen, and 
a jargon derived from ancient Khmer, used for certain com- 
mands and for traditional ceremonies. The Khmer people of 
eastern Thailand and Cambodia were the foremost trainers of el- 
ephants in the old days. Most renowned of all were the Suay 
people, an indigenous ethnic group related to the Khmers. Suay 
actually means taxes and refers to the fact that these people were 
allowed to pay taxes rather than provide forced labor as their 
tribute to the king of Siam. It was a measure of their status as 
capturers and trainers of chang , or, to use the Khmer and Suay 
name for elephant, thum rai. 

For centuries, nearly all the mahouts chosen to work with 
Thailand’s royal white elephants have been Suay. The mahouts I 



Thailand 377 

met at the palace were from the main area inhabited by this 
group, the part of eastern Thailand around the city of Surin, 
close to the Cambodian border. Before I left to visit it, Richard 
Lair instructed me to keep an open mind about the natural hab- 
itat of the Asian elephant. The Suay, he said, captured elephants 
by chasing them down on the back of tame mounts and noosing 
them around the foot with a rope dangling from a pole. They 
could do this, he argued, because so much of the region around 
Surin and adjoining portions of Cambodia were open grass- 
lands, part of a savanna ecosystem that supported great herds of 
elephants. By the same token, the Assam region of India, which 
supports one of the largest remaining wild elephant populations, 
is also more of a grassy plain than a jungle. 

So do not conclude that the Asian elephant is basically a 
forest-dweller, Richard cautioned; the species is more variable 
and widespread than that. Or was. “Half a century ago, the 
Surin area was a wildlife paradise,” said Richard. “Along with 
elephants, you would have seen a large population of ungu- 
lates — Indian, or two-horned, rhino; Sumatran, or one-horned, 
rhino; gaur; wild water buffalo; and two more rare bovids, ban- 
teng and kouprey — all feeding in what was a mixture of knee- 
high grasses and copses of trees. Now, I’m afraid, it is all rice 
fields and brown, weedy plain, semiarid and terribly overused.” 

So it was. I stopped in Surin long enough to note a number of 
stores selling ivory along the main street, army trucks disgorg- 
ing troops into the whorehouses in the hotels, and refugee relief 
trucks resupplying for a run toward the Cambodian border, just 
seventy miles distant. 1 picked up translators so that we could 
work from Khmer to Thai to English and then drove out to the 
Suay village of Tha Klang. I had heard that generation after gen- 
eration in such outlying villages has lived in thatched-roof 
houses with elephants in the yard. Popular stories tell of ele- 
phants in the Surin area walking children to school, and Richard 
Lair saw photography of elephants that the accompanying text 
said acted as nannies, caring for children while the mother was 
occupied or temporarily away. Those claims may or may not be 
valid, but in many a Suay home, a young boy and a young ele- 
phant would grow up together and form a lifelong bond, with 



378 The Fat* of the Elephant 


die boy taking responsibility for the animal as its mahout by the 
age of ten. 

Before any such relationship, however, came a much less 
charming period of breaking the young wild elephant. After 
tying it to a tree, men would poke and prod and beat it with 
sticks for days on end — singing traditional songs the whole time 
they tortured it — until the youngster quit lashing out at its tor- 
mentors and stood dazed and exhausted and wholly subdued. 
Once the animal stopped reacting, the men "would start touching 
it with their hands rather than sticks, and, rather quickly, the an- 
imal accepted their dominion and became receptive to their de- 
mands. If it did not, it might have wounds inflicted in its neck 
and salt rubbed into them, then a rattan collar with embedded 
thorns placed around the neck to make the animal more respon- 
sive. I have heard stories of elephants committing suicide by 
stepping on their trunk, though I don’t think there is much truth 
to them. 

The way to Tha Klang led across miles of unrelieved ricefpad- 
dies, looking browner and drier than ever in the io5°F days be- 
fore the summer rains. Scarcely a bird sang in the scrub. If one 
had, it might have been shot bylocals like the young men who 
passed me on motorcycles, each with a shotgun strapped to his 
back. On a comer of the road, a boy no older than five or six 
stared back at me with expressionless eyes, holding a slingshot 
in one hand and a small, dead songbird by its feet in the other. 
On ground too sandy or rocky to grow rice, the villagers had 
planted a hardy weed: hemp. Most would be made into fiber, 
and some would be mixed with tobacco and smoked. 

The young son of an interpreter rode with me in the back of 
a pickup through the brown, bald contours of rice paddies that 
stretched away toward the horizon. His fingernails were painted 
bright red. Northeastern Thailand was experiencing a rash of 
what were called widow ghost deaths. Perfectly strong, healthy- 
looking young men were suddenly dying in their sleep. By the 
score. In desperation, males had taken to painting their nails like 
a woman to fool the widow ghost. After a young man with 
painted nails died, some men tried a new prophylactic mea- 



Thailand 379 

sure — hanging huge phaltic symbols outside their homes, hop- 
ing the man-hating widow ghost would attack those instead. 

No one was able to pin down the cause of the deaths. Some 
health officials suspected environmental contaminants, perhaps 
combined with the stress of hard physical labor. Pesticides were 
a likely candidate. An astonishing proportion — on the order of 
50 percent or so — of Thai farmers suffered medical problems 
from excessive exposure to pesticides. While working in their 
seasonally flooded rice fields, they were standing day after day 
in what amounted to a chemical soup. More than a third of all 
the farmers afflicted experienced severe ailments, ranging from 
tremors and nerve damage to liver failure. 

When I reached Tha Klang in midday, 1 found families sitting 
on hammocks in the shade of their traditional wooden houses. 
The old men were smoking and talking; the young men were 
hanging out, tattoos of wats and flying tigers emblazoned across 
their bare chests; the women were weaving on looms or prepar- 
ing meals; and the elephants came and went along the streets. A 
fifteen-year-old bull elephant stood tethered nearby, and as I 
struck up a conversation with some people, he thoroughly 
worked over itchy parts of his skin with a pencil-size stick 
grasped in his trunk. Behind his ears was a delicious bit of 
scratching; I could see the lids half-close over his eyes as he hit 
certain spots. Then the underside of his trunk got a going over 
with the stick while he simultaneously rubbed his rump against 
a eucalyptus tree. I was beginning to itch just watching him. 
Next, he turned to the callused and tether-chafed sections of his 
forelegs. Finally, the bull got at an irksome section on his broad 
side. The delicate pattern his stick made in the brown dust caked 
there reminded me of the paintings I saw Ruby the elephant 
make at the Phoenix Zoo. 

I was introduced to a former elephant catcher named Bhan 
Kanin. 

“I went with thirty other men, and each of us had two ele- 
phants. On some trips, we would be gone three months into 
Cambodia,” the fifty-six-year-old remembered as we sat in his 
packed-earth courtyard. “We would go out until we found foot- 



380 Thb Fate op the Elephant 

prints of elephants and follow them, then ride and try to get our 
rope around a front or rear foot.” To be more specific, die men 
used three categories of elephants: swift trackers, or chasers, 
which tired out the animals being pursued and prevented them 
from escaping into thicker forest; captors, which pressed against 
a wild elephant’s side or rump with their heads while the mahout 
tried to lasso a leg; and fighters, the largest of the domesticated 
animals, used to help subdue a new captive once the rope around 
its leg was tied off to a tree and it began topanic and try to tear 
itself loose. Of course, the animal being sought or its relatives 
might turn to battle the pursuers any time before that. 

“Dangers awaited us always, especially from the fighting be- 
tween wild elephant families and our mounts,” Bhan Kanin con- 
tinued. “So before we started from the village, we brought the 
pakam [catching rope] from its resting place and made offerings 
to it to prevent accidents.” 

Other means of tipping fate their way were put in motion as 
well: “The wives could not cut their hair or clean the house, 
speak to strangers, or sleep in any other house but their own 
while the men were away,” Bhan Kanin went on. He said it was 
for luck, but with the elephant<*catchers gone for three months 
or so, it was also surely for marital fidelity. No guests or even 
relatives were to sleep in a mahout’s house either. Family mem- 
bers were to dress plainly, and dirt was to be swept into a pile 
inside the house rather than out the door. “We spoke only in a 
ghost language to bring luck and not let the elephants know who 
was coming.” And the men never used their own names. 

They tried to catch elephants about three years of age — 
“chest-high elephants,” Bhan Kanin called them — and each man 
might take three or four or even five of them before the expe- 
dition ended, at least in his father’s day. Bhan Kanin began going 
on elephant hunts into Cambodia at age eighteen and continued 
for fifteen years. He quit, along with most other villagers, in the 
late 1960s, when soldiers in war-torn Cambodia began sowing 
the hillsides with mines and booby traps and shooting at the 
Suay and their elephants. 

At least 2 million people have died in the war that has run on 
for more than twenty years in Cambodia. One of die few 



Thailand 381 

growth businesses in the devastated economy is the production 
of artificial limbs; the countryside is so thickly laden with anti- 
personnel mines now that humanitarian agencies report a mini- 
mum of 300 amputees per month among the rural populace. 
Elephants and people tend to use the same trails through the for- 
est, which makes me wonder what percent of the remnant wild 
elephant population is lumbering about on three legs in the hills 
past villages full of one-legged and legless children. 

The rumor was that, mines notwithstanding, the Suay still 
stole across the border into Cambodia and even into the Cham- 
passak area of Laos to snatch a few baby elephants and bring 
them back to Thailand to sell or raise for themselves. While the 
shutdown of logging made working cow elephants worth less 
than before, hobbyists were still paying 1 $0,000 to 200,000 bhat 
(U.S. $6000 to $8000, several years’ wages for an average Thai) 
for a handsome and well-behaved male. So the Suay were still 
somewhat in demand as trainers. 

The Suay had always sold elephants to be used in the logging 
industry but seldom participated themselves, saying they did 
not like to see elephants worked so hard. They had always had 
months when they rode their elephants into villages and towns, 
and sometimes on into Bangkok, to do stints as itinerant doctor 
elephant men. Presently, many depended more upon their rice 
crops than upon their skills as elephant handlers. Yet the Suay 
were still busy raising and breeding elephants and still finding 
ways to profit from them. 

“I got 6000 bhat for one tusker who was thirty-two years old 
back when I was catching them. It was a big price then,” Bhan 
Kanin recalled. “Now we cut the tusks, carve ivory a little, and 
go around being doctor elephant men. We can first cut the tusks 
at age twelve to seventeen. They sell for 6000 bhat per kilo” — 
the same price he got for the whole elephant a few decades ago. 
Prime-quality ivory sells for three times that much. And the vil- 
lagers can rent out their elephants to circuses and tourist shows 
for 6000 bhat per month as well. Elephants from Tha Klang 
work as entertainers and billboard carriers in Surin, Bangkok, 
Chiang Mai, and the southern coastal resort area of Phuket. 

Villagers have to rent out a fair number of their elephants, be- 



382 The Fate of the Elephant 

Cause there is no longer enough forage for them near the village 
except during the rainy season. Bhan Kanin had six elephants 
rented out when I met him. His son owned another; I met it 
along the road as it was carrying back a load of bamboo fodder 
to the village. It had to be kept in the family yard at night to dis- 
courage ivory thieves. 

Some village elders took me to the edge of the fields to meet 
Boon Peng, a sixty-year-old retired logging elephant whose 
long tusks were worth 100,000 bhat and still growing at the rate 
of an inch per year. Captured long ago in Cambodia, he lived 
out his days here attended round the clock by a herder of about 
the same age whose wage was paid in part by the district gov- 
ernment. Upon hearing that a bull with such tusks still wore 
them, the governor himself apparently helped arrange special 
protection for Boon Peng. I looked upon him as the counterpart 
of renowned tuskers in parks of Kenya and South Africa who 
had full-time guards assigned to protect them. 

As evening descended during one of my visits to Tha Klang, 
elephants traipsed by, bearing home more fodder, while monks 
in saffron robes tied strings from a lovely, glittering wat to every 
house in the village, symbolizing the flow of spiritual power. Oil 
lamps winked on from porches. The onrushing darkness seemed 
to restore a touch of magic to the brown and blasted land. A 
party with dancing was planned that night, for Buddha was 
coming to look in on every household and bestow blessings. 1 
couldn’t help wishing that the strings ran on to encompass the 
homes of all the wild creatures native to the area. Instead, the 
monks cranked up a generator to run two loudspeakers turned 
to full volume, and a lot of the magic suddenly withdrew to 
alight at some more distant site. 

The Suay still perform riak kwan chang, the blessing ritual for 
a newborn elephant. A dignitary, or special teacher, known as 
the moh riak kwan chang presides over the affair. Offerings of 
chicken, rice* bananas, candles, incense, and alcohol are made. 
In this ritual, the sacred white cord does link human and beast. 
It is held by those in attendance while Buddhist monks chant and 
a piece of white cloth is placed upon the elephant’s back. Various 



Thailand 383 

wild grasses are presented for the baby to eat, though it is still 
nursing. Then the grasses are tied in a bunch and used to flick 
sacred water over the young animal’s back. May strength and 
fortune and happiness be yours, little elephant. Having been 
bom in captivity, you are no longer chao pa, lord of the jungle, 
so we call the soul of the jungle here to enter into you. Newborn 
elephants are all called by the generic name Aphawk. As with in- 
fants in a number of human tribes, they are not given their true 
names until they have survived a while and grown a little older 
and stronger. 

On the edge of Surin is a soccer held where, once a year, as 
many as i$o elephants are assembled to put on shows, including 
a soccer match. Another feature is a tug of war between an adult 
elephant and an army troop of about 120 men. The elephant is 
invariably the victor, which, if you think about it, makes the 
ability of a mahout to control such a giant with a single soft 
word all the more amazing. The Surin festival has become one 
of the largest gatherings of domesticated elephants anywhere, 
and it draws so many tourists that the town bulges at the seams. 
Townspeople still talk about an elephant that got roaring drunk 
in the streets after a tourist gave it a couple of bottles of booze. 

Ten years before I arrived, a Chinese businessman in the con- 
struction trade, Mr. Sinchai, and his Thai wife, Mrs. Pranee 
Thanasamut, bought elephants from various sources and started 
a full-time elephant show in Surin. “Suay people are definitely 
the best trainers,” Mr. Sinchai told me. “They have a special rap- 
port with the animals. They are good Buddhists and can make 
an elephant stop walking just by reverence, by thoughts. They 
understand elephants in their hearts.” 

As he rhapsodized, we were on the open second story of his 
construction yard, surrounded by heaps of concrete bags, sand, 
cables, paint cans, and the like. Mrs. Pranee Thanasamut and a 
couple of young women were counting thousands of coins on 
an abacus and stacking them in neat rows. Mixed in with the 
supplies were rows of yang chang, elephant riding chairs, the 
Thai equivalent of the Indian howdah, for Mr. Sinchai and his 
wife also rent out elephants for Buddhist ordination ceremonies. 



384 Thb Fate op the Elbphaht 

He could make money simply by buying elephants and holding 
on to them while their price rises, then selling them and their 
ivory. In fact, he does that. He informed me that although the 
price of cow elephants did indeed sink after the logging ban, it 
was on the upswing again, because more people were getting 
into the business of commercially breeding elephants. 

“Before, I owned just four elephants. I thought of them like 
ducks or buffalo,” Mr. Sinchai admitted. “Then a Japanese man 
came and gave us the idea: Why don’t you do a show?” He did. 
At the moment, he was arranging another show with twelve el- 
ephants, this one to be sent over to Japan for six months. 

From the construction business, 1 went to Mr. Sinchai’s ele- 
phant stables and yard. A particular baby elephant there caught 
my attention. It had been shuffling about with a handful of other 
orphans on a concrete slab. Tears trickled down from each eye to 
streak its dusty face. A mahout who came by said it was close to 
feeding time, and the little ones often cried when they were hun- 
gry. He brought plastic buckets of milk mixed with supplemen- 
tal food, which the babies had been trained to drink with a 
section of hose cut tp make an elephant-size straw. But the 
youngster, I noticed, was crying' again after it had finished eat- 
ing. I don’t know where it came from or where it was bound. I 
don’t think it knew where its home was either. But that wasn’t 
why it was crying; at least, I don’t think that was it. Nor was it 
crying because the forests were gone and elephants had been re- 
duced to a sort of side show. That was just my projection of how 
discouraged I felt now and then. It was crying for reasons all its 
own. For some reason, it brought to mind all the stories I had 
heard of elephants dying of grief. 

I went to take in the nightly fare at the Elephant Gardens, 
where Mr. Sinchai had developed an entire entertainment com- 
plex featuring a swimming pool, billiards, five bands, food, and 
plenty of drink. The highlight was the elephant show, which 
was basically a circus act, with young elephants doing silly hat 
tricks, playing a harmonica, walking a balancing beam, walking 
over inebriated members of the crowd who volunteered to lie 
prostrate on the ground, and so on. These were the warm-up 



Thailand 38$ 

acts for the Thai kick-boxing match featuring a mahout dad in 
red silken shorts and red boxing gloves and a juvenile elephant 
of about five or six with a boxing glove tied to the tip of its 
trunk. 

Both man and elephant jogged into a ring to perform bows 
and traditional prayers, as kick-boxing contestants do prior to a 
match. Then the kicking and slugging began. Between each 
round, baby elephants paraded through the ring carrying plac- 
ards announdng the number of the round to come. Another 
baby trotted out and showered the contestants with water. The 
fighting elephant was trained to unleash some forceful side kicks 
with its rear leg and unfurl its trunk in straight-on punches. The 
mahout had to take care to anticipate them. If, like a stunt man, 
he began leaping away the instant before the elephant struck, 
then the effect was of a mighty blow lifting him through the air 
for several feet. But if he missed his timing, he received a thrust 
that knocked the wind out of him. After several rounds, the ma- 
hout would deliver a flurry of blows and appear to be gaining 
ground — and then the elephant would K.O. him. 

It was nice to see an elephant win something, even if the fight 
was fixed. 



THIRTEEN 


Malaysia 


L51S151ST In early may of 1990, I was back in Bangkok 
from the Thai countryside, catching up on newspapers and mag- 
azines while waiting to depart the country. Three news items 
stood out. The first was from Kenya, where illegal killing of el- 
ephants persisted despite that nation's beefed-up antipoaching 
efforts and despite the ivory ban. Although many Kenyan 
poachers had been arrested over the past several months and 
some were said to have actually turned themselves in, those who 
remained were becoming, if anything, tougher and cruelerthan 
before. They killed at least fifty-seven elephants in Tsavo during 
January alone. They also shot three teenage boys as suspected in- 
formants. And they were taking hostages from villages, both to 
discourage informing and to serve as porters. Even Wakamba 
tribesmen, among the most skilled of trackers, had been fooled 
by poachers willing to walk backward for ten miles to throw off 
pursuit. 

The second news item was from closer to where I had just 
been. Burma's military rulers were not only suppressing de- 
mocracy and human rights in a general way but had specifically 
targeted the rebellious Mon and Karen ethnic groups for de- 
struction. They were buying the weapons and supplies for their 
campaign with millions of dollars’ worth of Thai money, gained 
from the sale of logging concessions. Recently, the Burmese had 
doubled the concession price. All but a few Thai companies paid 
it without argument; they wanted the timber that badly. As a 
further gesture of good will between business partners, the 
Thais were looking the other way when Burmese troops crossed 
into Thailand chasing Karen guerrillas. These arrangements 



Malaysia 387 

were made public by U.S. Senator Patrick Moynihan, who 
eventually persuaded the U.S. Senate to impose economic sanc- 
tions on Burma and ban the import of tropical hardwoods from 
Thai companies doing business there. 

The third news item came from closer to where I was going. 
It was an update from the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the is- 
land of Borneo, where loincloth-clad Penan tribespeople had 
been standing in front of bulldozers sent to raze the jungle on 
which they depended. Officials bent upon selling off the rain- 
forest trees and putting in plantations were not impressed. They 
jailed the Penan demonstrators and moved whole villages out of 
the forest into settled lands, stating that this was for the Penans’ 
own good. Strange. The old white colonial mindset about civi- 
lizing savages seemed to have been adopted wholesale by Ma- 
laysian authorities — right down to the part about how those 
poor jungle-dwellers suffered from disease and ignorance out in 
that green hell and needed to be saved from themselves. Instead 
of the white man’s burden, call it the Malay businessman’s bur- 
den. Just as in the heyday of the white colonials, most of the 
rhetoric was a thinly veiled rationale for shoving native people 
aside to get at the resources they were sitting on. 

Malaysia was my next destination, but not the island of Bor- 
neo, estimated to support 500 to perhaps 750 elephants. I was off 
to the mainland peninsula and its last elephant range, inhabited 
by 1000 or so of the giants. Nearly all of them are “pocketed,” 
to borrow the expression I heard when I arrived to meet with 
wildlife officials in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. Pocketed is 
merely one more way of stating the usual: isolated in remnant 
patches of forest amid fields and plantations; trapped on habitat 
islands in a hostile sea of development. Stuck. Surrounded. Cut 
off. Pinned down. . . . Pocketed. Some herds had already been 
that way for more than twenty years. 

In addition to the spread of village-based agriculture, Malay- 
sia has seen the conversion of rainforest to monoculture planta- 
tions on a tremendous scale, a process begun by British colonial 
interests and greatly expanded after independence in 1957. This 
country now ranks among the world's top producers of rubber 



3$S The Fate op the Elephant 

and palm oil as well as tin. Secondary commercial crops include 
coffee, cocoa, coconut, banana, durian (an unforgettable expe- 
rience in fruit, rather like a cross between a mango and Lim- 
burger cheese), other fruits, and tapioca. Conflicts between 
elephants and farmers or plantation owners have been pervasive, 
continuous, and bitter. Ironically, elephants and other threat- 
ened large mammals, such as rhinos, tapirs, orangutans, and 
gibbons, helped distribute the seeds of fruits and nuts now im- 
portant commercially. And among the £hief pollinators of key 
plant products — avocados, figs, mangos, guavas, durian, cash- 
ews, bananas, dates, and kapok — are bats, which are threatened 
by pesticide accumulations and the destruction of mangrove 
swamps that serve as their key nesting grounds. 

Elephant management in mainland Malaysia used to con- 
sist chiefly of shooting any animals that caused problems on 
cultivated lands. In the 1960s, officials started experimenting 
with an assortment of nonlethal techniques to discourage raid- 
ers. Trenching failed. As in India, maintaining steep-walled 
ditches through the monsoon rains proved too demanding a 
chore, and the giants tended to kick down the sides anyway. 
Once again, I heard how a laifge elephant was seen going down 
into a trench to let others walk across its back; this report was 
supposedly from a reliable wildlife warden. 

Electric fencing proved reasonably effective. More than 350 
miles of it now ran along property borders on the mainland. 
However, the common shortcomings were also apparent. Ele- 
phants pulled up support posts or threw trees down across the 
lines to get past them. Small farmers lacked the money to install 
such fencing themselves. When big plantations successfully used 
electric fencing, the result was often that the elephants focused 
harder on the plots of small farmers next door. 

The wildlife department used to gather men to act as beaters 
and try to drive problem elephants to new areas. It still does, in 
some situations. But in the early 1970s, Malaysia initiated a new 
method: capturing and translocating wild elephants with the 
help of tame ones. Brought in from Thailand and India, the tame 
elephants were already fairly well trained. The challenge lay 



Malaysia 389 

in training a band of wildlife department personnel to handle 
them. Malaysia has only a very limited tradition of working 
with elephants. Ruling sultans kept a few tame elephants as sta- 
tus symbols. British overlords sometimes used the giants for 
personal transportation and, as in Thailand, for hauling tin from 
the mines. But that was about it. 

Being predominantly Muslim, the citizenry had no particular 
reverence for the beasts either. Villagers had few qualms about 
putting arsenic or battery acid in fruit along elephant paths. 
Now and then, they laid naked wires connected to high-voltage 
lines across the paths instead. Not many would hesitate to shoot 
at elephants with whatever old shotgun or homemade rifle 
they could get their hands on. Plantation owners and other big 
landholders surreptitiously hired gunmen to deal with raiding 
elephants. Poaching would surely have been far worse had Ma- 
laysia not outlawed high-caliber rifles for fear of insurrection. 
After the government handed out modern semiautomatic weap- 
ons to villagers near the northern border to use against com- 
munist insurgents, the area immediately underwent a terrific 
increase in the poaching of large mammals. 

Oil palm plantations are popular among both economic plan- 
ners and elephants, which naturally find young palm heart a 
delicious and nourishing food. The capture teams’ first test in- 
volved a World Bank-sponsored project that had replaced tens 
of thousands of acres of native forest in one area with oil palm 
and was experiencing serious elephant munchdown. Then, in 
1984, the teams were sent to rescue elephants trapped on an is- 
land by the water rising behind a new dam. Once more, they 
were successful. The effort was quite popular with the public, 
and the wildlife department won funding for further work. 

Capturing and translocating pocketed bands grew to be the 
main thrust of elephant management. Though expensive and 
time-consuming, it works. The main question has become 
where to put the giants once caught. There are really only two 
secure wild spots left now on the entire mainland. One is pro- 
tected as Taman Negara National Par]c. Established in 1938 by 
the British, it is still the mainland’s sole national park. At 1680 



390 Thb Fate of the Elephant 

square miles, it holds, at most, a couple of hundred elephants 
and is probably already close to carrying capacity, given the 
amount of steep and rugged terrain within its boundaries. The 
teams had been relocating some of the captured elephants there 
nonetheless. 

The rest were released in a different stretch of mountainous 
terrain in the extreme north, near the border with Thailand. 
This area’s forests had largely escaped cutting because the gov- 
ernment recognized their value in flood control and water stor- 
age; thus ran the official explanation. The fundamental reason 
was that this rugged terrain had been a no-man’s land in a 
long, desultory war between the government and two rebellious 
communist forces: Malaysian communists and Thai Muslim 
separatists. 

Mr. Mohammed Khan bin Momin Khan, director-general of 
the wildlife and parks department, kindly arranged for me and 
photographer Bill Thompson to take part in a translocation to 
the northern frontier region from a developed district 'called 
Sungai Siput in the state of Perak. Accompanied by wildlife of- 
ficer Zaaba Zainol Abidin, Thompson and I set off driving along 
Malaysia’s main north-south highway. 

Whenever I talk with people about my travels in exotic- 
sounding places, they want to know: Weren’t there snakes? 
Man-eating tigers? Crocodiles? Virulent parasites? Didn’t you 
get chased by rhinos? Lost in the swamps? No one ever asks 
about the most dangerous thing I do, which is hop in a car 
with strangers and drive hour after hour under the insane con- 
ditions that pass for normal in so many countries. Sudden 
confrontations, surging adrenaline, screams and shouts and 
hair’s-breadth escapes — these outings in automobiles have it all, 
all the damn time. But everybody wants to know about snakes 
and tigers. 

The north-south highway was a narrow, two-lane artery 
originally designed to carry a smattering of vehicles. Now that 
Malaysia was more populated and prosperous and car ownership 
was more common, the route was hopelessly overloaded. The 
constant game of trying to gain a few minutes by passing at high 



Malaysia 391 

speed under doubtful circumstances made this ribbon of asphalt 
one of die most conspicuous causes of death in the country. I 
would rather have danced with wild elephant bulls in musth. Se- 
riously. Once you have made it out to where the snakes and ti- 
gers and rampaging elephants are, you are relatively secure, 
having left the paved highways behind. 

In Sungai Siput, we met wildlife biologist Mohammed Sha- 
riff Daim. Shariff helped put together the elephant capture 
teams and oversees most of their operations. His men had al- 
ready tracked down a wild female that belonged to a band of 
crop-raiders and immobilized her with drugs from a dart gun. 
Of an estimated 170 elephants in the state of Perak, about 40 re- 
mained in this particular district. She was the eleventh to be 
caught so far. The capture team had her tethered by a cable to a 
tree up in the nearest hills. 

To its credit, Malaysia protected habitats above 1000 meters 
(3280 feet) in elevation from heavy logging, a rule intended to 
aid water and soil conservation. But steep, hilly country was not 
the elephants’ prime habitat and never had been except season- 
ally. The best forage and most biologically diverse forests grew 
in the lowlands, and those were typically the first areas to be 
preempted by human activities. In Sungai Siput, five dams had 
flooded out traditional lowland elephant range and forced the 
herds closer to existing fields, intensifying conflicts created by 
the loss of other lowland habitats from timber cutting and ag- 
ricultural expansion. 

The hills were what was left for the giants — their refuge, 
where they retreated after making a raid. A spine of rugged ter- 
rain running north and south through the peninsula, the hills 
also served as a wildlife travel corridor. We were originally 
going to camp up there with the captive elephant, but the army 
forbade it, because guerrillas occasionally used the hills as a 
travel corridor as well. The area was still lousy with land mines. 
Shariff said he had seen a number of elephants stumping around 
with a leg blown off. 

We ended up on the outskirts of t village, welcomed with a 
speech by die local political dignitary, Meor Osman bin Imam 



392 The Fate of the Elephant 

Pinawa. His grasp of resource and wildlife issues in his baliwick 
was admirable, and he went on for some time about how every- 
one wanted to have more industry, more agriculture, and more 
wildlife, too. Since i960, elephants had caused some U.S. $12 
million of damage in this district. Alas, he concluded, they just 
had to go. I slept on the concrete floor of some official barracks, 
listening to mosquitoes try to drone their way inside my net 
while a hard rain began outside. 

We arose early and drove as far as we could on the muddy 
roads, then hiked up the mountainside toward the captive fe- 
male, with the sun lifting steadily higher and the forest all 
around us beginning to steam. We found her in an arena of 
churned, yellowish mud, caked with it from trunk tip to toe. 
When she stood still a moment, she resembled a pottery statue 
left in the forest as an offering. She was relatively small and 
young, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old, and thinner than 
she ought to have been. Though somewhat weak and # dehy- 
drated as well, and constantly giving out frightened-sounding 
squeaks and squeals, she was still feisty enough to hurl back the 
palm fronds that the men tosspd to her for food. At one point, 
she grabbed an overhanging liana and tried to whip that into us. 
She was hungry, though, and finally began to eat some of the 
food offered her. Tracks showed that a bull had visited this fe- 
male during the night. What brought him to her side was any- 
one’s guess, but it was probably to see if she was sexually 
receptive. However, it was plain from her enlarged mammary 
glands that this cow was already pregnant. 

She also had a bullet wound festering near her left temple. 
Drawing closer, I noticed a second wound on her left rear leg. 
Shariff told me that since 1972, his teams had translocated more 
than 240 elephants — which amounted to one of every four ele- 
phants left on the mainland, I realized. And roughly one in every 
five that they handled had serious injuries caused by shotguns 
and small-caliber rifles or snares: suppurating bullet holes, 
blinded eyes, legs and trunks turning gangrenous from the un- 
forgiving wire nooses tightened around them. The snares were 
set for deer, wild pigs, and other smaller game, but they caught 



Malaysia 393 

tigers and elephants too. There is nothing more disheartening, 
Shariff said, than watching an elephant whose snare-constricted 
trunk has rotted off crawl around on its knees trying to get at 
low-growing food. 

Pit traps catch a few elephants as well. Director-general Mo- 
hammed Khan described a mother toiling all night to free her in- 
fant from a deep pit by kicking down the sides. Unsuccessful, 
she stayed on through the day, facing down men who came to 
scare her off by firing rifles and shotguns. She kept charging the 
men, returning to break down the edge of the pit, charging 
again. And by two in the afternoon, her young one was free. 

I sat a short distance downhill from our captive, wringing out 
the sweat from my shirt and picking off leeches. Broadbills 
belled in the nearby branches and simian monkeys toured the 
treetops, carrying on loud conversations on their way toward 
other parts of the hills. Mr. Pinawa, the village politician, had 
arrived with a small entourage and bustled about collecting a 
plant called the tongat ali tree, which he said had a tonic effect like 
ginseng. After a while, even this energetic fellow came to a stop 
and hunkered quietly with the rest of us in the hot jungle air. 

We were waiting for the tame elephants. They arrived in mid- 
morning: the big bull, Bahadur, whose name means Powerful 
and who came originally from Assam, and one of two cows the 
department got from Surin, Thailand. Carrying two riders, Ba- 
hadur approached the little female and smelled her vulva. Only 
a week out of musth, he still had considerable interest in femi- 
nine scents. Once satisfied about her condition, he began his 
work of positioning himself against her, calming her slightly, 
and helping to keep her from lunging about. 

Then the tame female moved in, carrying her mahout, and 
greeted the captive with an exchange of trunk tips in the mouth. 
The extra calming effect on the younger cow was immediate and 
most welcome, for too much niore stress combined with her 
weakened state could tip her over the edge into shock or death. 
Zaaba commented that in the early days of the program, losses 
among elephants being chased and handled ran as high as 20 per- 
cent, and stress was a major factor. 



«* r*M Bu/kant 

Wildlife war dens also haJ to (dlfi ffAen faced 

with animals that unexpectedly charged. One wild tusker held 
fast by a chain wore the metal through over a period of several 
days. When a warden came to feed it banana leaves one morning, 
the bull snapped the fetters and smooshed the man. Other rang- 
ers arrived to find the bull standing over the body, refusing to 
budge. They put seventeen shots into him before he finally went 
down. 

“It is a pitiful thing to have to shoot an elephant,” Shariff mut- 
tered, shaking his head. “I myself have never done it in all the 
years I have captured elephants. I cannot. The animal is so sad, 
so afraid. Sometimes there are tears streaming down the face. 
One time, an elephant killed a villager, so I am called in to kill it. 
We have to recover the person’s body. Ooohf! The body has 
been rolled up, then stretched out flat and trampled, and then 
rolled up again like a newspaper. All the bones have been 
smashed. The villagers formed a vigilante committee and shot 
the elephant with shotguns. We found it standing and waiting, 
knowing we were all around. One eye was shot off. It was bleed- 
ing from new wounds and abscesses from old ones all over its 
body. We dropped it with twc> shots. The next morning, two 
vigilantes went out to see the results of their shooting. The bull 
was up again, waiting, bleeding all over. It grabbed one of the 
villagers and flung him around like a palm branch, killing him. 

I don’t think elephants are always dangerous. But once you dis- 
turb them, they become very dangerous.” 

Drug overdoses were a common problem during capture. 
Animals’ systems suddenly shut down and never started up 
again. Shariff had seen elephants swallow their tongues and 
choke to death. These kinds of reactions had been dramatically 
cut back with more experience and new compounds with better 
tolerances and surer antidotes. Nevertheless, a capture team 
often faced the possibility that, after being darted, an elephant 
would keep running until it finally staggered into a pond or 
swamp, where it might drown before it could be revived. A few 
had fallen on steep slopes in such a way that they broke a leg or 
even the spine. Others fell with their trunks pressed beneath 
them and died for want of air. And due to the proboscideans* un- 



Malaysia 39s 

usual breathing mechanism (having lungs directly attached to 
chest muscles instead of being inflated when the diaphragm cre- 
ates a vacuum), any animal that collapsed onto its chest and 
stayed in that position — termed sternal recumbency— for more 
than half an hour risked suffocating from its own tremendous 
weight. It might be saved if its captors could somehow push it 
over onto its side. 

While Zaaba and SharifF were explaining such risks, one ma- 
hout leaned over Bahadur’s grey side and injected tranquilizer 
into the wild female, now squeezed between her two tame com- 
panions. The dosage was calculated to keep her calm but fully 
mobile. But it wasn’t long afterward that she crumpled into the 
muddy, trampled clay. She was apparently weaker than anyone 
had realized. Wearing a grim expression, SharifF ordered the ma- 
houts to have their mounts lift her up off her sternum. They did, 
and the female began to revive. 

It was important to keep her moving. Quickly, the mahouts 
wrapped ropes around her, fashioning them into a harness. To 
the harness were attached more ropes and chains so that she 
could be marched down the trail between the two tame ele- 
phants, the lead one pulling and the other following, sometimes 
nudging her from behind. Our captive went down twice more 
in the mud before we got under way, then collapsed again in a 
shallow stream, where our cavalcade had paused to let her drink. 
Each time, the tame mounts urged her up and then on, and be- 
fore long we were down in a mature rubber plantation at the 
base of the hills. 

Word of our enterprise had spread with the inexplicable speed 
at which messages seem capable of traveling in the bush. A 
crowd made up mainly of rubber tappers and their families be- 
gan to accompany us down the lower part of the trail. By the 
time we neared the waiting trucks, people were racing our way 
on bicycles and motorcycles. Someone had even shown up 
wheeling an ice cream cart. No wonder this elephant and her 
family had gotten in trouble. Though comparatively remote, 
this countryside was plainly far more crowded than I had 
realized. 

Seeing my notebook and Thompson’s cameras, tappers Tasu 



396 The Fate of the Elephant 


bin Jusoh, Ismael bin Sood, Mohammed Alwi, and Mohammed 
Samad crowded around to tell us of their experiences with wild 
elephants. “Two people we know have been killed by them. Two 
tappers/’ said Tasu bin Jusoh. And one logger and one member 
of an aboriginal tribe in the area, I learned. “We used to make 
noise to scare the elephants. But now we just keep quiet and run 
away, because now the elephants get angry.” With at least one in 
five bearing severe injuries from humans, that wasn’t very 
surprising. 

“One is in my lot right now,” said Mohammed Alwi, refer- 
ring to the section of the plantation he was assigned to tap. 
“Every morning when I go to work, I am interfered with be- 
cause I must worry about elephants. I worry about my family — 
wife, children — each time they go to the stream to wash. The 
elephants chased one man here very much.” 

How many times had he actually encountered elephants 
lately? 

“Ten times this year,” he replied. 

“We ask you to help us move away the excess,” another man 
broke in. “Tigers are not a hazard to us. They don’t bother. El- 
ephants bother. I am glad to see this elephant go. We don’t want 
them back.” 

“Tigers don’t eat us. I don’t know why,” added the politician 
accompanying us. “Maybe it is because if they do eat us, their 
brains get damaged, and they want to go into politics.” 

Mighty Bahadur and the tame female finally walked the cap- 
tive up a ramp onto a massive truck, where she was firmly 
shackled. Then the two tame elephants loaded themselves into a 
second truck, which became stuck in the mud but finally pulled 
out to bump along behind the first. Jasmi bin Abdul, the wildlife 
department’s director for the state of Perak, also along on the ex- 
pedition, smiled and said, “One wild elephant safe.” 

Sort of. 

We still had a trip of about 120 miles ahead of us to Lake Te- 
menggor by truck. For much of the way there, we passed an al- 
most unbroken canopy of trees. But they were rubber trees. In 
the intense gloom beneath them, the soil contained little but res- 



Malaysia 397 

iducs of paraquat and other herbicides mixed with fertilizers. 
Streams issuing from the rainy slopes were laden with silt. Some 
were the color of yellowed cream, while others looked almost 
like old blood. Whenever we passed marshes and swamps, 1 
scanned the shores, looking for wading birds. I saw none — not 
floating, not feeding, not diving, not flying. Nothing, and it was 
eerie. Nor did the rubber tree forest seem to hold any. No color, 
no wings, and, most unsettling, not even song. The chemicals 
seemed to have burned the heart out of the country. 

As we neared Lake Temenggor, the altitude increased. With 
great relief, I began to see stands of tall native vegetation on the 
slopes. Farther on, there was even a highway sign warning of el- 
ephants crossing. We arrived late in the evening at an army base 
at Banding Island, close to the huge dam on the southern shore. 
The air was still hot and filled with minuscule biting gnats. As 
the tame elephants were unloaded and put to work unloading the 
captive, I was surprised to see different mahouts riding the 
giants. In a system unusual for Asia, all of the department’s cap- 
ture team had been trained as mahouts, Shariff pointed out, and 
the elephants were conditioned to accept them equally. 

Instead of rubber tappers, we now had an army camp’s worth 
of soldiers for an audience. They were familiar with wild ele- 
phants, whose paths could be found throughout the encompass- 
ing hills; it was tame elephants that they found unusual. I went 
for a cold drink before bed. At the tavern, I met an officer who 
told me that a big bull had killed a soldier at this camp. “We still 
keep the elephant’s foot,’’ he laughed and then pointed toward 
the peak of the thatched roof, where night-flying insects hov- 
ered around a bare bulb. “I was chased by one five meters tall — 
taller than this restaurant, taller than our biggest troop carrier!” 
he announced. Wow. Five meters. No one else had seen an ele- 
phant that tall since the imperial mammoth went extinct. But he 
was a major, and as far as I am concerned, pistol-packing majors 
in bars in the middle of the night in their country are right every 
time. I bought him a beer and wished him pleasant dreams. 

The following day, we loaded the captive female onto a raft 
made of thick wooden decking upon fifty-five-gallon petrol 



398 The Fatb of the Elbphant 

drums for flotation and chained her in the center. Shariff sprayed 
her bullet wounds with disinfectant, and we shoved off as a 
small flotilla. Four army motorboats full of rifle-bearing soldiers 
pushed against the rear of the raft, and a couple of others cruised 
alongside as escorts, carrying assorted park bureaucrats, biolo- 
gists, and dignitaries, including the indefatigable politician from 
Sungai Siput. The lake’s shimmering surface reflected ever 
thicker jungle on ever taller hills. Men sprawled or sat all around 
the raft’s edge. And in the very center, legs stretched out by teth- 
ers but towering above all the rest, stood the female, waving a 
palm frond from her food pile high in the air with her trunk. The 
pageant took on the aspect of bearing a sacred white elephant or 
some great personage toward a new kingdom. Or of Lilliputians 
taking Gulliver for a cruise. 

I rode with Zaaba, Shariff, and the mahouts aboard the big 
raft. Before noon, men were improvising tents from tarps set on 
poles and crawling under them in search of shade. The day was 
windless and, with the sun reflecting off the satin surface of the 
water, growing insufferably hot. I hunkered under a parasol 1 
had brought, but the sun seemed to burn right through the thin 
doth. My urge to jump overboard and drift along hanging onto 
the raft was quelled when the men told me the lake was full of 
snake-headed, snaggle-toothed fish that would bite chunks out 
of my limbs and probably tear off my genitals. I tried to tell 
whether they were kidding me or not; maybe these ferocious 
fish were like five-meter-tall elephants. But nobody else jumped 
in, and the size of the fishy backs I saw roiling the water here and 
there was intimidating in itself. I later saw a picture of these fish 
on a poster, and their teeth were enough to give anyone pause. 

The farther north we went, the more the elephant seemed to 
revive. Shariff continually doused her with a hose from a port- 
able pump. 1 was interested to see how quickly she seemed to 
learn that the hose represented a source of drinking water. She 
kept trying to grab it and bring it closer. The more chipper she 
felt, the more she took to whipping palm fronds toward the men 
encircling her. Soon, we all were huddled at the very corners of 
the raft while she strained against her leg chains and shot out her 
trunk, trying to reach someone. She did reach a shade tarp and 



Malaysia 399 

ripped that. She got hold of the hose, too, briefly; Shariff man- 
aged to jerk the smooth plastic free from her trunk. Next, she 
ripped loose a thick length of mooring rope and started whip- 
ping that around while men dove and ducked. Then a leg chain 
snapped. This could get interesting fast, I thought, and I started 
edging toward one of the motorboats at the stem. 

Shariff had told me about a raft trip during which an elephant 
broke a chain, got hold of it with her trunk, and literally cleared 
the decks. Some elephants are right-handed and some left- 
handed, he reminded me. I thought Shariff was referring to the 
way they favor one tusk, often called the master tusk. But he 
meant that certain elephants have a tendency to swing their 
trunk in one direction. They also favor one rear leg over the 
other for sudden side kicks. Having learned from bloody expe- 
rience, the capture teams were careful to observe an elephant 
closely for such tendencies before moving in to begin chaining 
or unchaining it. 

At last, the northern shore where we planned to release the fe- 
male came into sight. As we nudged against the muddy shore, a 
heavy gangplank was put out to reach the bank, and the mahouts 
carefully began loosening the bolts that held her chains. This 
was a touch-and-go part of the operation under the best of con- 
ditions. The idea was to free one rear leg and one front one at the 
same time, keeping the other two restrained until everyone was 
clear, then simultaneously release those two. But with one leg 
already free, our captive turned the rest of the sequence into a 
rodeo. One mahout got kicked all the way from the raft up onto 
the shore. I was out there stretching my legs when I saw a body 
come flying through the air. I looked over to see how he was, 
and when I looked back toward the raft, the first thing I saw was 
the female trotting down the gangplank toward me. I started 
racing away to one side, slipping on the muddy clay embank- 
ment. But I was flattering myself that she would seek me out for 
punishment. All she wanted to do was get away into the em- 
bracing jungle. 

Now, as the state’s wildlife directpr would say: one wild ele- 
phant safe. 

Sort of. 



400 The Fate of the Elephant 

Back by the army camp, I ambled off through the hills, and, 
in the space of a couple of hours, encountered a large python, a 
four-foot-long monitor lizard, soft-shelled turtles in little pools 
along a streambed, and the tracks of wild elephants, pigs, and 
deer. But when I asked permission to go hiking farther in this 
animated rainforest, I was told that it was out of the question. 
The terrain was still a guerrilla stronghold, chock-full of mines 
and booby traps. Talks had brought about a truce, though, and 
the rebel forces would soon help the government find and dis- 
arm the mines. However, that was no sooner agreed upon than 
the government started talking about selectively logging the re- 
gion, which was intended to serve as watershed protection and 
had been proposed for national park or game reserve status. 

Some cutting was already occurring along the lake’s southern 
end, near the army camp. We stopped to visit one site where the 
largest hardwoods had just been plucked. Shorea, or sal wood, 
and dipterocarps called maranti and merbau were the prize 
sources of lumber. Altogether, thirty-one different tree*species 
were taken in “selective” logging here, said the man supervising 
the loading of stacked logs onto trucks. These were bound for 
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

Zaaba observed that truly selective logging is difficult to en- 
force. Companies generally cut more than their allocated quota. 
They also tend to build big, meandering roads so that they can 
take still more trees on their way in to a logging unit. Once the 
roads have been punched through and parts of the rainforest 
opened up, this draws the usual squatters and poachers. Then, 
when enough people populate an area, the government is likely 
to give them ownership of private plots within the forest. Not 
just likely, but eager. If colonists — squatters — do not arrive in 
large numbers, FELDA, the Federal Land Development Au- 
thority, is likely to bring them in, subsidizing a rubber or oil 
palm plantation and translocating farmers from elsewhere to 
work on the project, giving each five to ten acres to tend. After 
twenty years, a settler gains title to that private plot free and 
clear. 

This modified homesteading program is part of Malaysia’s 
plan for opening up its last frontiers. Apparently, the political 



Malaysia 401 

leadership looks toward Japan and Taiwan as models, believing 
that such nations are economically successful because they are 
loaded with people. While Malaysia has done very well export- 
ing raw materials, it needs to stimulate domestic demand, and at 
the moment, it lacks sufficient consumers to do that, the gov- 
ernment has stated. Accordingly, the prime minister has called 
for increasing the country’s population from 17 million to 70 
million by the year 2095. As an inducement, the tax law was re- 
written to give people with large families a substantial break. I 
had not stopped to think about the concept of breeding citizens 
to create more consumers. I do not want to stop to think about 
it now. 

Hard-pressed to save wildlife under current human densi- 
ties — realistically, the chances of sustaining a minimum viable 
population of 500 breeding elephants in mainland Malaysia were 
slim — most of the Malaysian biologists with whom I spoke 
were less than enthusiastic about a call from the head of state to 
quadruple the human population. Still, they were cautious not 
to criticize government policies outright when I opened my 
notebook. Here was a potent reminder of what some would say 
is a simple and obvious fact: wildlife agencies cannot be counted 
upon to do what is best for wildlife. That is not their primary 
purpose. They are instruments of government policy. Their real 
job is to try to fit wildlife into prevailing social and economic 
plans. Sometimes their job is to see that wildlife is destroyed as 
benignly as possible. 

Although the southern area around Lake Temenggor was clas- 
sified as permanent forest, a number of places with the same 
classification have been opened up to agricultural schemes. 
Meanwhile, the more remote northern portion of the forest, 
where we had dropped off the elephant, was close enough to 
Thailand that it held not only Thai Muslim separatists but Thai 
poaching gangs after ivory, meat, other animal parts, fruits, and 
sandalwood, which went to make incense, carved Japanese 
boxes, and Middle Eastern furniture. The upshot was that none 
of the forest in northern Malaysia could safely be considered 
permanent elephant habitat. 

Being this dose to Thailand caused other problems as well. 



IPX O? THt BlEPHANT 

Some of our forge crew kept disappearing off to the whore- 

houses across the border and returning with serious hangovers, 
which Muslims are not supposed to have because they do not 
drink. One reason the rubber plantations continued to expand, 
I had been told, was the dramatic worldwide increase in the use 
of condoms and rubber gloves due to the AIDS epidemic. But 
condoms were for other countries. No one believed the virus 
was common in Thailand yet. Why? Because no one wanted 
to believe it. Tests conducted not long afterward in Thailand 
showed 20 percent of the prostitutes and almost 5 percent of the 
military to be HIV-positive. 

Shortly after we finally rounded up everyone and started back 
toward Sungai Siput, we stopped at another army camp. A 
huge, old, wild bull included the barracks there within his home 
range. He occasionally caused problems, but the soldiers let him 
be, partly on the theory that if this dominant male were re- 
moved, even more troublesome younger males might replace 
him, and partly because he had become a sort of mascof. How- 
ever, the bull was in a bad way, the soldiers told the biologists. 

Shariff and several helpers went off to deal with the animal. 
The rest of us met them near flusk. Still groggy from drugs, the 
bull was standing in a deep, leafed-over ravine, where Shariff 
had cleaned and disinfected his wounds, climbing a ladder to get 
at them. Just over a week ago, the bull had been gored in the 
head by another male. I could see a gaping hole on the top of his 
skull. Apparently, the hole continued all the way through the tis- 
sue into a sinus, for the elephant was spraying mucus from the 
top of his head. He looked like a whale spouting water. He 
sounded like one, too, down in the darkening grotto. 

The bull’s right eye was blind, lost in an earlier fight. Yet the 
cruelest wound was one made just days before we arrived. When 
the bull wandered too close to a nearby village, someone 
climbed a tree and dropped acid onto his back. The chemical had 
eaten deep down through the flesh, leaving a gaping white 
trench that appeared to glow in the fading light. Shariff said the 
bull was at least sixty years old. The tops of his ears confirmed 
the estimate, as they curled over and flopped loosely when the 



Malaysia 403 

animal moved. 1 could not fathom much else about this massive 
creature and the turbulent years he had weathered. Night sealed 
him off from view. We left him there, snuffling and blowing, 
giving off land whale sounds, an animal that stood as its own 
monument to the will to endure. 

Once back at Sungai Siput, the politician honored us with an 
invitation to dine at his house. As it turned out, Thompson and 
I were seated next to him at a head table before an assemblage of 
dozens of other guests and honored further in the traditional 
way by the host feeding us select morsels from his own hands. 
We dined exceedingly well on course after course of piquant Ma- 
laysian cuisine and grinned our way through speeches that we 
could not understand, though our host tried valiantly to trans- 
late from time to time. 1 enjoyed myself but could not escape the 
realization that, upon awakening the next morning, we had to 
repeat the whole translocation procedure with a different female. 
I drifted toward sleep tasting the spicy beef called rendang and 
smiling at the memory of going to McDonald’s in Kuala Lum- 
pur my first day in Malaysia and ordering a McRendang to see 
what in the world that was. 

Come morning, we hiked through a countryside of rubber 
trees and secondary forest to where the second female was 
chained. Larger than the first, she had barely escaped drowning 
in a swamp when she was darted. The capture team managed to 
haul her uphill from the reeds and get her chained to a tree on a 
steep slope just above the water. A wide swath through the 
swamp showed where an entire elephant family had come to 
visit her during the night. I wished that instead of listening to 
speeches at the politician’s home, I could have been out here 
trying to understand what those animals had to say. 

Like the first female, she had churned the soil around her to 
mud, and when the tame elephants arrived, they had a lot of dif* 
ficulty working around her to secure a harness and chains. Once 
they started to move uphill, it became apparent that she could 
scarcely handle the slope at all. Shotgun and small-caliber rifle 
wounds formed pustules along her left side, but her basic prob- 
lem was that her left front leg was horribly swollen and ab- 



404 Thb Fatb of the Elephant 

scessed from a snare wire embedded within it. She was unable to 
put much weight upon it at all. 

As she struggled to get up the slippery hillside, she used her 
trunk as a crutch. She fell to her knees many times and twice 
onto her side. With a great deal of lifting and hauling, the tame 
mounts and their mahouts finally got her to the top, and we 
started off through the secondary forest. She grew less and less 
groggy as we ambled along. She even proved able to muster a 
couple of charges, breaking a loosely secured rope. During the 
second charge, a Malay and I, each looking over his shoulder at 
the female, smacked into each other at a dead run. Being heavier, 
I knocked him flat. By the time I helped him up, it was all over; 
the female had been jerked to a stop by a longer chain attached 
to the elephant bringing up the rear. We probably could have 
dodged her anyway, given that infected foot of hers. 

Shariff had neither the time nor resources for performing ma- 
jor surgery to cut out the wire and arranging for her to recuper- 
ate somewhere. Our plan was to spray disinfectant* on the 
abscess and hope that it didn’t turn gangrenous, then release the 
female out among the minefields and Thai poachers of the 
northern mountains, whiclv would probably be logged and 
turned into plantations before too much longer. 

iracnfflCBKlWBlWCilPilCilCilCi 

There comes a point, I realize, when it seems as if all I am doing 
is chanting the same old litany of problems and complaints. But 
I am reporting exactly what I observed in my efforts to see and 
learn about elephants. The Malaysian biologists said cne in five 
elephants they handled bore grave, human-inflicted injuries. I 
happened to go three for three. The biologists spoke half- 
heartedly of plans on paper for more nature reserves and corri- 
dors between them. I could not see any sign of such a program 
becoming reality anywhere. Rather, 1 saw clearcuts of 20,000, 
30,000, and 40,000 acres — clearcuts a> far as the eye could see, 
completely leveled and burned, to be seeded with nothing but 
new rubber trees. 



Malaysia 40s 

I met Negrito aborigines who still hunted with blowpipes and 
poison-tipped darts, their villages surrounded by logging oper- 
ations now, who told me they had to go farther all the time to 
find game. Like pygmies I had met in the Congo, they had long 
traded honey, wild meat, and medicines derived from jungle 
herbs with villagers, but their irreplaceable knowledge of the 
forest was dwindling along with the forest itself. (They were 
the only folks I encountered who weren’t afraid of elephants. 
“We’re used to them. We chase them out of the fruit trees and 
vegetable gardens with noise and firebrands,” headman Baning 
Adik told me.) A forester informed me that one reason the native 
woodlands in that area were being cut and the Negritos rounded 
up and put in settlements was to help control the communist 
threat. I read a proclamation by one state official telling people 
to get busy and develop an “idle” tract of wild land or it would 
be given to someone else. 

I met a Canadian consultant for a logging company working 
on Borneo in the state of Sabah, which is where most of the last 
five hundred or so elephants on the island live. He told me of 
new fifteen-ton skidders that could carry ten tons of logs and de- 
scribed logging operations running twenty-four hours a day. 
His comment was, “It’s a war of attrition being fought on Sa- 
bah. Only now the enemy is the forest.” The Amazon Basin got 
most of the attention when people spoke of massive deforesta- 
tion, but the cutting was slower there than in this part of the 
world. In addition to the settlement encouraged by the Malay- 
sian government, land-hungry Filipinos were showing up to 
squat in Sabah’s newly opened forests. 

One place keeping pace with Borneo’s transformation was the 
other huge island nearby — Sumatra, which is par